Computer-Assisted Photo-Identification of Narwhals
Although the narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is economically and culturally important to northern residents, sound management of this species is impaired by large gaps in knowledge. Research on this species has been limited partly by the cost of the methods used, and partly because some of these methods are invasive and therefore condemned by Inuit communities. Photo-identification, a non-invasive, inexpensive, and easy-to-use method recently developed for narwhals, uses photographs of natural marks to identify individuals. Its main drawback is the extended time required to process photographs. We developed a computer program to accelerate the identification process and thus mitigate the main drawback of photo-identification. This program uses the locations of notches on the dorsal ridge to compare a new image to each individual in a catalogue and lists those individuals in decreasing order of similarity. We tested consistency in user assignment of dorsal ridge features and the accuracy of the program by comparing sets of known individuals. While assignment errors were common, the program ranked the true match within the first 10% of the catalogue 78% of the time. The program accelerates the matching process by 1.2 to 4.1 times for catalogues ranging in size from 40 to 500 individuals, and the degree of acceleration increases with the size of the catalogue. This program could also be applied to the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), another important northern species.