Computers & Mobile Science
Flickr data-mining discovers record-breaking whale migration
Whale 1363.jpg

Data is everywhere. Dedicated citizen scientists can advance “professional science,” even without any appreciable funding, by learning to intelligently navigate and draw conclusions from the oceans of largely un-analyzed public data that we swim through every day. This story from The Boston Globe is a fantastic case in point:

By scouring a photo-sharing website for tourists’ pictures of whales, a citizen scientist from Maine has helped to document a female humpback’s record-breaking 6,000-mile journey from Brazil to Madagascar. The remarkable voyage of whale number 1363 from one breeding ground to another is a scientific discovery for the social-networking age — a study made possible both by vacation photos posted on Flickr and an exhaustive library of photos of whales’ tails that scientists have built since the 1970s.

The tail of “Whale 1363” was first cataloged by scientists off the coast of Brazil in 1999. Then, two years later, Norwegian Freddy Johansen snapped a film picture of her off the coast of Madagascar. In 2009, Freddy scanned in a bunch of old negatives from this trip and uploaded them to his Flickr account, and this shot was found by Gale McCullough of Hancock, Maine, who regularly monitors tourists’ whale photos trying to match tails. An online pre-print of her discovery was published today in Biology Letters. [Thanks, Alan Dove!]


I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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