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Lost your pet zebra? Chicago scientist can find it for you

posted 23 May 2011, 09:54 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 23 May 2011, 09:57 ]

Researchers in Chicago have developed a new barcoding system that can identify and track zebras by their unique stripe patterns. The scientists say their computer program can also be modified to keep track of endangered species like tigers and some giraffe species.

Let's say you had a pet zebra that wandered into a wildlife refuge in Kenya. How would you be able to identify him from all the other zebras? Zebras all tend to look exactly the same.

Thanks to Tanya Berger-Wolfe The University Of Illinios-Chicago's Computer Science Department, your chances of finding your missing zebra are now much better than you

may have thought. It all comes down to their stripes.

"The beauty of zebra stripes, on one hand they are really prominent, they are out there, but there is also just a little bit of randomness. Nature puts just a little bit of difference in each one of them and so they are all unique, truly," said Berger-Wolfe,

Berger-Wolfe and her team of computer scientists have invented Stripe-Spotting, a computer program that transforms a zebra's stripes from a photograph into a seven line stripe code, something resembling a barcode.

"Now that we have these seven lines of relative blocks of black and white that is what we call stripe code, which is the unique identifier for that zebra and we can match those ratios to what is already is in the database," she said.

Now wildlife researchers can take a photo of an animal and load it into the computer program. The program generates a stripe code and matches it against other codes in the database. If the code isn't found than it is added to the database as a new entry.

Berger-Wolfe says that along with identifying the zebra, the program allows you to track and keep field notes as well, giving wildlife researchers a powerful tool to study the animals like never before.

"The reason we really want to identify these individual zebras is to be able to track them over time and we want to be able to not only track this one zebra in this one photograph but also all of the zebras in a group of zebras when you see them because we want to see how they are interacting."

Berger-Wolfe and her team are developing similar programs for other wildlife as well with a focus on endangered species such as tigers and giraffes.

She says one of the most important aspects of the program is the speed and quantity of data it can gather.

"Particularly for endangered species it is important to know where they are and what they are doing and we have precious little time to collect that data," she said.

Berger-Wolfe hopes that in the near future, her program will work in conjunction with camera-trap video like this showing a Sumatran tiger playing with her cubs in the Indonesian jungle. If the tiger's stripe pattern happens to be stored in the database, Berger Wolfe will be able to identify it, just as easily as she can find your lost zebra.