Reliable methods for identification of individual animals are advantageous for ecological studies of population demographics and movement patterns. Photographic identification, based on distinguishable patterns, unique shapes, or scars, is an effective technique already used for many species. We tested whether photographs of whisker spot patterns could be used to discriminate among individual Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea). Based on images of 53 sea lions, we simulated 5,000 patterns before calculating the probability of duplication in a study population. A total of 99% (± 1.5 SD) of patterns were considered reliable for a population of 50, 98% (± 1.7 SD) for 100, 92% (± 4.7 SD) for 500, and 88% (± 5.7 SD) for 1,000. We tested a semiautomatic approach by matching 16 known individuals at 3 different angles (70°, 90°, and 110°), 2 distances (1 and 2 m), and 6 separate times over a 1-year period. A point-pattern matching algorithm for pairwise comparisons produced 90% correct matches of photographs taken on the same day at 90°. Images of individuals at 1 and 2 m resulted in 89% correct matches, those photographed at different angles and different times (at 90°) resulted in 48% and 73% correct matches, respectively. Our results show that the Chamfer distance transform can effectively be used for individual identification, but only if there is very little variation in photograph angle. This point-pattern recognition application may also work for other otariid species.
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