A new app dubbed Critterpedia aims to act as “Shazam" for snakes and spiders using a trained algorithm to compare your snaps against a library of arachnid and reptilian suspects. Inspired by the rich diversity of wildlife in Australia, where there’s a fair few species you’d likely want to admire from a distance, it’s hoped the revolutionary tool can help curious residents and tourists alike assess whether or not a wild animal is dangerous.
“During one of her trips to Australia, my mother-in-law acted as a magnet for all of our country’s big-name snakes, spiders, and insects,” said Murray Scarce, co-founder of Critterpedia with partner Nic, in a statement. “The questions relating to their identification and danger levels were relentless, and the fact that we didn’t have all the answers simply exacerbated the situation.”
To put a stop to family hikes being dominated by the question, “Is it venomous?” they designed a platform that could quickly identify the family, genus, or species of an animal from a photo. The novel tech works by scanning a library containing hundreds and thousands of identified snake and spider photos and comparing them to your image, effectively accruing the identification skills of a zoologist with a lifetime of fieldwork experience.
The project is in collaboration with CSIRO’s Data61 to hone the technology so that the Critterpedia app can rapidly and reliably tell you what you’re dealing with before you go playing pet the pupper with a Sydney funnel-web.
“The visual differences between two species can sometimes be quite subtle, and so a great deal of training data is needed to adequately identify critters,” explained project lead and Data61 researcher Dr Matt Adcock. “We’ve started off with an enormous amount of images sourced from zoological experts collaborating with Critterpedia, and have developed a suite of tools to help semi-automatically label these images, verify the information, and cross-check with other data sources."
The app developers express that they’re still working through the logistics of the app to ensure that the tech is sufficiently reliable in correctly identifying species, a critical skill when dealing with some of the more deadly varieties of Australia’s diverse wildlife.
Australia has around 170 species of snakes (FYI, some of which can jump and "fly") and 2,000 species of spiders, some beautiful, some best avoided. While about 90 percent of these are harmless to humans, at least two types of spider and 12 snake species possess venom that could easily kill you. It would be good to know quickly which is which.
If you’re a keen photographer you can currently sign up to become a Phase 1 tester, which lets you download a beta version of the platform as well as contributing to the technology by submitting your wildlife photos, which will help further train the algorithm. Think of it as a big game of Pokémon and you’re helping to build the Pokédex, just please don’t try to catch ‘em all. Those cartoons never covered what happened when Ash tried to squeeze a Common death adder into a small ball.