The same technology used to nab criminals may help keep endangered lemurs roaming free. The new LemurFaceID program, described this week in the journal BMC Zoology, offers a non-invasive way for scientists to track individual lemurs in the wild.

We can’t protect endangered species unless we understand their lives, co-author Stacey Tecot of the University of Arizona said in a statement. “Studying lemur individuals and populations over long periods of time provides crucial data on how long individuals live in the wild, how frequently they reproduce, as well as rates of infant and juvenile mortality and ultimately population growth and decline.”

But figuring these things out can be tricky for researchers and stressful for wild animals, who don’t particularly enjoy being caught and tagged, collared, or swabbed.

So conservationists have begun exploring more hands-off techniques, including facial-recognition software. Software developers have already applied the technology to African lions and right whales with some success. Biometrics expert and co-author Anil Jain of Michigan State University suspected it might work even better with lemurs, whose facial features are as varied as those of human beings.

To start, Jain and his colleagues compiled 462 images of 80 different red-bellied lemurs* from Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park and the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, as well as 190 images of other lemur species. They standardized the photo formats, then created a program that would measure the proportions and features of the lemurs’ faces, thus devising a unique visual profile of each individual.

Crouse et al. 2017. BMC Zoology

Initial tests of the LemurFaceID program were astoundingly successful, quickly matching an image to the right lemur with 98.7 percent accuracy. The researchers believe the software could be easily adapted to identify other primates, bears, red pandas, raccoons, and sloths.

"Facial recognition technology has the potential to help safeguard our society," Jain said. "Adapting it to help save endangered species is one of its most inspiring uses."

*One of the lemurs is named Avery. That’s not important to this story, but we thought you’d want to know.