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Footprint IDs aid endangered species

An unusual footprint identification system is targeted at helping save endangered species. The wildlife conservation organization WildTrack is using the footprint monitoring technique to track several species. A major advantage of the non-invasive approach is that animals can be observed without disturbing their natural behavior.

Digital photographs are taken of footprints and downloaded onto a laptop or PC. Landmarks are placed at anatomical reference points on the image, derived points are created from those using an input algorithm, and measurements are made of distances and angles between all those points. The data collected is analyzed and compared with other footprints in the database using software from SAS and JMP, a business unit of SAS. The technique allows researchers to identify individual animals and assess group numbers with greater accuracy, according to SAS, and the software is customized for each species so that multiple conservation projects can proceed simultaneously.

"Increasingly, governments and authorities require hard evidence of the existence of endangered animals before they will listen to guidance about protecting their habitat," says Zoƫ Jewel, co-founder of WildTrack. "Moving forward, we hope to incorporate biometrics and other technology into our projects to help speed up the identification of animals."

The footprint identification technique is said to have already helped the black rhino population in Zimbabwe and has provided a census of white rhinos in Namibia. Current projects include the black rhino subspecies living in Cameroon, the Sumatran rhino in Borneo, the lowland tapir in Argentina, the Bengal tiger in India and Bangladesh, and the Iberian lynx in Spain and Portugal.

The Iberian lynx, with only 150 members left, is WildTrack's most recent project. The organization is working with Spanish authorities to build a library of footprints to develop an algorithm that distinguishes lynx footprints from other carnivores such as otters and genet cats.

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