NASA Star-Tracking Technology Will Help Save Whale Sharks Because Their Skin Looks Like the Night Sky

Despite its size, the whale shark is a gentle giant that feasts on plankton. SCOTT TUASON/AFP/Getty Images

We are all made of star stuff but some creatures show their celestial origins more clearly than others. The spots on the backs of whale sharks resemble star constellations so much that now ocean researchers are enlisting the help of NASA technology to keep better record of this vulnerable species and perhaps save them from the threat of extinction.

A new study published online in BioScience, appropriately named the Undersea Constellations study, aims to use a NASA algorithm originally designed to help identify star patterns to better analyze the speckled backs of whale sharks, SBS News reported. The project will use more than 30,000 photos of the gentle ocean giant, mostly taken by tourists, to help identify and track individual sharks. The NASA program takes a scan of the shark's spots and then pairs it up with other other matching images in its archives.

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"That pattern is like a fingerprint, it's unique to each individual, so we're actually tagging the whale sharks without touching them," said lead study author Bradley Norman, a marine conservation biologist and founder of ECOCEAN, a non-profit marine conservation group, ABC News reported.

The project has even led to a new terminology to refer to a group of whale sharks: a constellation.

Already, the Undersea Constellations project has helped reveal new information about this mysterious sea animal. For example, scientists have learned that these spots are permanent for each fish—the animals neither gain nor lose them throughout their long lifetime of up to 100 years. In addition, the project revealed that male whale sharks outnumbered females by a ratio of two to one.

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Aside from their star-studded skin, whale sharks are notable for other reasons, too. To clarify, the whale shark is a shark not a whale, and therefore a fish not a mammal. It is the biggest shark in the world, and also the largest fish on the planet as well, reaching up to 40 feet long, National Geographic reported.

The whale shark prefers warmer tropical waters. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GettyImages

Despite its size and link to more vicious members of its species, this shark is anything but dangerous and feeds mostly on plankton. They don't even have teeth and couldn't hurt you if they tried, relying on a filter in their mouth similar to whale baleen to fish out plankton from the sea. For this reason, tourists often flock to whale shark constellations in tropical seas for a chance to swim with the giants and capture a truly unique selfie with these mammoth creatures.

But the whale shark is considered a vulnerable species. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, this status is partly because of fishing, whether it be the direct fishing of the shark for its meat, fins and oil, or them accidentally getting caught in nets meant for other species. In addition, whale shark tourism is also a threat to the species because it can interfere with their eating habits or the sharks can be accidentally injured by the boats. One of the aims of this new project is to understand exactly how much eco-tourism activities interfere with whale shark behavior in the aims of helping to preserve this precious animal.