At the elephant habitat at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Shannon Smith and Russell Pharr are doing something usually reserved for zoo visitors, not keepers. Side by side, phones held aloft, they’re taking photos of Suki, the zoo’s 56-year-old Asian elephant. Their angles are different: Smith, assistant curator, is at least a foot shorter than Pharr, staff biologist. But their goal is the same: Snap a total of 100 Suki photos each over the next few weeks.
Why? So that on the other side of the country, a computer algorithm can learn to recognize elephant faces around the world. It’s a multi-zoo project, eventually powering an app that could speed up research, protect elephants in the wild and help us all see elephants as individuals with deep connections to our own stories and survival.
“We are excited to be able to help with this innovative project, and provide additional support for elephant research and conservation,” says Telena Welsh, curator of Asian animals at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. “The hope is that this research could help protect wild elephants. If Suki can help by acting as a model, that would be wonderful.”
“This project all began when I was researching elephants in Africa before my Ph.D,” explains Dr. Daniella Chusyd, postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University Bloomington, whose research focuses on elephant endocrinology and the connections between social and physical health. “Researchers who’d been there for years could identify hundreds of elephants at sight. But I would have to snap a photo out in the field, then flip through thousands of photos to find out who it was. I realized that if artificial intelligence could learn to recognize elephant faces the way it can do for humans, it would make research so much faster and easier.”