These ‘shy’ sharks are under threat, so researchers are using AI to track them

Off the coast of South Africa lies the Great African Sea Forest, home to one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. Many types of life live within the waters including fish, octopus, sea slugs, large amounts of kelp, and sharks that are not found anywhere else in the world.

Among those sharks is an elusive type known as the puffadder shyshark. These shysharks have golden and red brownish markings that mimic the puffadder snake found in South Africa. The small shark is non-confrontational – earning its shy nickname for the way it curves and uses its tail to covers its eyes, protecting vital organs and making it harder for predators to get them. Yet the sharks are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with their population in decline.

To help protect the shyshark, along with the other biodiversity along South Africa’s shores, marine scientists Mike Barron and Dylan Irion created Cape Research Diver and Development (Cape RADD), engaging biologists and citizen scientists to help with their work.

Shysharks earn their nickname by curling up in a protective ball to evade predators. - A. Mertens/Shutterstock
Shysharks earn their nickname by curling up in a protective ball to evade predators. - A. Mertens/Shutterstock

“We decided we needed more people to know about this amazing area of biodiversity and the incredible, beautiful ocean we are working in,” says Barron.

The team developed a system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help safeguard the sharks. Called Fin Spotter, it identifies individual sharks and their species in images, to track if that particular shark has been spotted before – a useful tool for conservationists trying to protect the already threatened marine life before it’s too late.

“The job is to identify those tipping points before they’re reached and to be vigilant,” Irion says. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Watch the video at the top of this page to learn more about Cape RADD and Fin Spotter.

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