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Facial Recognition Software Could Help Researchers Identify Individual Whales

Facial recognition software is good for more than just tagging photos of your friends on Facebook. The technology is now being used to identify individual whales from above. 

Christin Khan, a biologist who studies North Atlantic right whales for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was inspired by a specific detail she often captures in her aerial photographs of the animals. The whales Khan studies have distinctive pale markings on their heads called callosities, which are areas of raised thickened skin. The light color comes from the thousands of "white lice"—small crustaceans called cyamids—that call the callosities home. These spots are similar to thumbprints in that their unique patterns can be used to distinguish whales from one another.

Determined to turn her observation into a practical tool for research, Khan took her idea to the internet. She offered users on the data competition site Kaggle a $10,000 prize provided by the software company MathWorks to develop an accurate facial recognition software for right whales. Nearly 500 people vied for the top prize, and it was ultimately awarded to the data science company Deepsense.io, whose software was able to identify the whales with about 87 percent accuracy. The initial data set was composed of 4500 whale pictures, and the team says they will need more photographs in order to improve the technology. 

In addition to its applications in whale research, the software could also have a more direct impact on whale conservation. When a whale becomes entangled in a net, fishing crews could use it to ID the trapped whale and gather information about its health history to inform a course of action. According to Khan, it will be another year before the research team is prepared to use the software in the field. Similar identification technology is currently being pursued for humpback whales, which can be told apart by their distinctive tail flukes rather than the markings on their backs. 

[h/t: Fortune

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Animals
25 Shelter Dogs Who Made It Big
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If you’ve been thinking of adding a four-legged friend to your brood and are deciding whether a shelter dog is right for you, consider this: Some of history’s most amazing pooches—from four-legged movie stars to heroic rescue dogs—were found in animal shelters. In honor of Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, here are 25 shelter dogs who made it big.

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technology
This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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