A new research project is looking to investigate whether technology combined with the ancient skills and knowledge of Namibian trackers can help save cheetahs from extinction. Called FIT Cheetahs, the research project will try to determine whether existing Footprint Identification Technique (FIT) can be adapted to find out if individual cheetahs are related and in turn hopefully give wildlife conservationists a cheaper, quicker and non-invasive monitoring technique that could have applications across all endangered species.
A new research project is comparing traditional genotyping with the new Footprint Identification Technique, called FIT, developed by WildTrack. This software analyses a cheetah's footprint and can already detect the species, gender and age class of individuals. The question is, can it also determine whether different individuals are related?
The FIT Cheetahs project is being run by Larissa Slaney, a Wildlife Conservationist and Life Scientist from Herriott-Watt University's School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure, and Society.
“By analyzing digital images of their footprints and using some of the knowledge of native trackers, the FIT technology, developed by WildTrack, can already identify cheetahs and other species at the individual, sex and age-class level with more than 90% accuracy. First indications suggest that the current technology is picking up something about the relatedness of individual cheetahs. However, this crucial research project will help develop a new algorithm for FIT and improve its accuracy so it will hopefully be able to determine the relationship between individual cheetahs," said Slaney.
Cheetahs have become an endangered species as their numbers have dramatically dropped from an estimated 100,000 at the start of the last century to around 7,000 in 2017.
"I am grateful to the N/a’an ku sê Foundation in Namibia, who has agreed for me to include a group of their captive cheetahs into this study. In addition, I am also intending to get several zoos on board, so that I can include different subspecies of cheetah, rather than solely South African cheetahs from Namibia. There are five recognised subspecies of cheetah: The Northwest African cheetah (A. j. hecki), the Central African cheetah (A. j. soemmeringii), the East African cheetah (A. j. raineyi or A. j. fearsoni), the South African cheetah (A. j. jubatus) and the Asiatic cheetah (A. j. venaticus). If cheetahs from the other four subspecies are included in the study, both the genotyping and the FIT should show clearly that these individuals are not related to the South African cheetahs in this study," explained Slaney.
To help to further develop and test the FIT software, Slaney will need to collect footprints and DNA from a captive cheetah population, analyze both and compare the results. She is working with the N/a’an ku se Foundation, a conservation charity in Namibia, that will give her access to a large group of cheetahs.
“Everyone loves cheetahs, but most people don’t realize that this beautiful species is in trouble. I have chosen science crowdfunding to raise awareness and to get the public involved in helping the cheetah. If we can demonstrate that the FIT technique can be adapted to provide vital information on the interrelatedness of these increasingly rare animals, it will support their chance of survival and, hopefully, that of other endangered species as well,” concluded Slaney.
About the Author
Larissa Slaney is a PhD student at Heriot Watt University. She is currently studying to see if deep learning can be useful in identifying cheetahs based on their footprints.
This piece first appeared on iAfrikan.com, and was republished here with permission.
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