Here at the Natural History Film Unit, we specialise in the biographical storytelling of Africa’s most iconic animals. We hope that by working with individual characters and bringing genuine stories to your televisions, we make people fall even slightly in love with them. In doing so, those people, from around the world, from the comfort of their own sofa, see these animals living their extraordinary lives in an equally extraordinary pristine habitat, and realise the value in protecting both.
Our work allows us to follow individual characters and their families as they navigate life in the treacherous paradise that is Botswana's Okavango Delta. But you might have wondered, how on earth do we tell them apart?! Well, this blog is a quick run-down on how we identify our characters, and bring their stories to your screens.
Let’s start with ear notches. Animals, and especially predators, are highly territorial. If you’ve seen an individual in a particular area with a particularly distinctive feature and are lucky enough to see another individual with that same feature in the area again, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve got the same guy. One of the most distinctive features of any of the individuals we work with are ear notches. As predators fight, whether with each other or with different species, their ears seem to be one of the most vulnerable areas on their bodies. Huge chunks can be carved out of their ears to create ‘notches’ that stay with them for life.
Other distinctive features can include a tipless tail (especially for lions), missing chunks from noses, or obviously broken bones. Scars are a tricky one. In the right light, a scar can look extremely visible and prominent, but under different light conditions they can disappear entirely. On top of that, given their lifestyles, predators have an extraordinary healing abilities and what can look like a life changing scar can become nearly invisible within months. That being said, some scars do stay for life and can play an important role in identifying the individual.
Leopards and lions have highly visible ‘whisker spots’ that are unique to each individual (unlike cheetahs, suggesting that they are not as active night-hunters compared to other felids). These identifying features are a series of relatively parallel rows, each of which has a different number of spots, making up a unique pattern on each side of the animal’s face. The third row from the top is the ‘reference line’ which is compared to the top row. Some individuals might have a simple pattern of 3 dots, while others have more complicated triangles and shapes.
Finally, the coat pattern is key. A leopard and cheetah’s spot pattern follows something of a template, but within that template there is variation on each individual. Other than the whisker patterns, you can look at unique splatters of spots in the space between their eye-brows. While researchers of the African leopard tend to rely on whisker spots, researchers on the South American jaguar rely on this area to tell them apart. On the other hand, African wild dogs look like they have each been individually splashed with paint, resulting in their mottled coats, which are each as unique as a finger print. Indeed, their scientific name (Lycaon pictus) appropriately translates to the ‘painted wolf’.
This might all sound very complicated, but help is on the horizon! With the aid of artificial intelligence, new software is letting researchers identify individuals in the blink of an eye. One particular company, Tech 4 Conservation, has developed software that can pick out leopards, lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and hyena on an individual basis, using a similar algorithm to that which NASA uses to map stars.
Photos may be provided by individuals or collected by camera traps, and are stored in a database known as the ‘African Carnivore Wildbook’. When new entries are added, they can be compared to to the existing records. If the whisker/coat patterns match up with the individuals age, sex, and other distinguishing features, it’s a match. This ‘virtual mark-and-capture’ method of identification has huge implications for conservation, in a non-invasive or disruptive manner.
By tracking individuals, researchers can more accurately estimate population numbers and see how animals disperse around the Okavango Delta (especially in light of climate change and other factors impacting their movements). It could even start to mitigate human-animal conflict by identifying ‘problem animals’ living on the peripheries of human settlements before they become so.
With advancements in camera resolution and greater accessibility of digital cameras, the involvement of ‘citizen scientists’ in this research has never been easier. Whether that may be involving a snappy-happy tourist or a local scientist, this not only helps to collect invaluable data on animal populations, but it is also a great way of getting everyday individuals involved in creating public awareness and environmental education. The conservation of Africa’s most iconic animals requires all of our help – and this is just one way you could get involved.
Endangered species need our help today more than ever.