FREEPORT, Maine (AP) — Facial recognition technology is primarily associated with uses such as surveillance and authentication of human faces.but scientists believe they have found a new use for it: saving seals.
A research team at Colgate University has developed SealNet, a database of seal faces created by taking photographs of dozens of harbor seals in Maine’s Casco Bay. The team found that the tool’s accuracy in identifying marine mammals is close to 100%, no small feat in an ecosystem that is home to thousands of seals.
The researchers are working to expand their database to make it available to other scientists, said Krista Ingram, a Colgate biology professor and team member. Expanding the database to include rare species such as the Mediterranean monk seal and the Hawaiian monk seal could help inform conservation efforts to save those species, she said.
Cataloging seal faces and using machine learning to identify them can also help scientists get a better idea of where the seals are in the ocean, Ingram said.
“Understanding their dispersal, understanding their patterns really helps inform any coastal conservation effort,” he said. “For mobile marine mammals that are very mobile and difficult to photograph in the water, we need to be able to identify individuals.”
SealNet is designed to automatically detect the face in an image, crop it, and recognize it based on facial patterns, such as the shape of the eyes and nose, just like a human would. A similar tool called PrimNet used in primates had previously been used in seals, but SealNet outperformed it, the Colgate researchers said.
The Colgate team published their findings in April in the scientific journal Ecology and Evolution. They processed more than 1,700 images of more than 400 individual seals, the newspaper said.
The paper stated that “the ease and richness of image data that can be processed with SealNet software constitutes a vital tool for ecological and behavioral studies of marine mammals in the developing field of conservation technology.”
Harbor seals are a US conservation success story. The animals were once subject to bounties in New England, where fishermen considered them pests in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which turned 50 in October, extended new protections for them, and populations began to rebound.
Seals and other marine mammals have long been studied using satellite trackers. Using artificial intelligence to study them is one way to bring conservation into the 21st century, said Jason Holmberg, CEO of Wild Me, an Oregon-based company working to bring machine learning to biologists. Wild Me is developing a potential partnership with SealNet.
“This is a change and an elevation of the ‘big brother’ style technology to a very benevolent conservation style target,” Holmberg said.
Harbor seals are now quite abundant in New England waters, where they haul themselves over rocks and delight seal-watching cruises and bathers. However, other species of seals remain endangered. The Mediterranean monk seal is believed to be the most endangered seal in the world with only a few hundred animals remaining.
Using facial recognition could provide more valuable data, said Michelle Berger, an associate scientist at the Shaw Institute in Maine, who was not involved in the SealNet research.
“Once the system is perfected, I can envision many interesting green applications for it,” Berger said. “If you could recognize the seals and recognize them year after year, that would give us a lot of information about movement, how much they move from one place to another.”
Colgate researchers are also working with FruitPunch, a Dutch artificial intelligence company, to improve some aspects of SealNet to encourage wider use. FruitPunch is having a few dozen scientists from around the world work on a challenge to optimize SealNet’s workflow, said Tjomme Dooper, FruitPunch’s director of partnerships and growth.
Improved automation of facial recognition technology could make SealNet more useful to more scientists, Dooper said. That would open up new opportunities to study the animals and help protect them, she said.
“What this does is help biologists study the behavior of the seals and also the population dynamics,” Dooper said. “Harbor seals are an important indicator species for the ecosystem around them.”
Follow Patrick Whittle on Twitter: @pxwhittle
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