Fast Company

Nature's UPC Code: Zebras

Improving research by treating animals like a box of cereal.

Zebra stripes

Scientists have discovered a harmless, inexpensive way to track Zebras in the wild: snap pictures of their strips and ID them like UPC product codes.

Tracking animals over time is essential to understanding migration patterns and species repopulation. The traditional methods of tagging mammals can be costly and endanger the animal's life. Other less pleasant methods have included feces sampling and manual identification from photos, which are time-intensive or limit the sample to easily identifiable animals. Instead, clever researchers devised StripeSpotter, a method for translating black and white stripe patterns of individual zebras into a machine-readable line code.

Nature's imperfect, fuzzy, gray, curvilinear patterns are hacked into clean slices of black or white stripes of varying length. A touch of human cropping is needed, as pesky mammals have a habit of running in packs, rather than posing for individual pictures with good posture like attention-seeking starlets.

As shown below, scientists draw rectangles around the sides of a single animal, and the software does the rest.

The crowdsourcable project could be used in tandem with other research projects around the world and is currently shared on code.Google.com. The technology holds the potential to categorize a range of species with identifiable patterns.

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