What is FIT?
Developed from indigenous tracking techniques, FIT is a simple, affordable method for tracking species and identifying individual animals with only their footprints. Consider how easily we can identify any human by their fingerprints; with FIT's algorithm, it's possible to apply a similar principle to the species we study. Without high-tech (and costly) gear like GPS collars or camera traps, it can be tricky to gather accurate data on wildlife populations, particularly those which are difficult to observe firsthand in the field. But field researchers will know that signs of wildlife are all around us, and the FIT system allows you to form a richer, more comprehensive picture of these populations and their ranges in a non-invasive way. Using customized species algorithms that analyze footprints, FIT can gather crucial data on sex and age, as well as differentiating between individual animals within a population.
The algorithm, built using captured footprint data from captive and wild animals, has an accuracy of approximately 95% for identifying individuals. When used alone, FIT is a wonderful way to map the presence of species and populations within nearby ecosystems. When used alongside other types of conservation technology in the field, such as drones, camera traps, eDNA forensics, or bioacoustics, FIT serves as a powerful aid for enhancing and analyzing data, and filling in gaps.
This infographic explains how zookeepers working with carnivore species have used FIT to benefit field researchers studying endangered big cats in the wild. Although this infographic is specific to animals in captivity, the principles for gathering data in the field are largely the same.
Unlike other highly specialized tracking techniques, FIT is accessible to anyone who regularly encounters wildlife footprints. The only equipment needed to participate with FIT is a digital camera, a computer, a method for obtaining a field location (such as a GPS unit or location app), a scale (a ruler), and either a voice-tag or pen and pencil. Its lack of specialized equipment and ease of use also makes FIT a great way to engage local communities and classrooms with wildlife.
Below, the team behind WildTrack walks through the FIT process. Again, though this video features captive cheetahs, the principles for collecting footprints and utilizing FIT in field research are similar.
How Can You Get Involved?
As we've said, FIT is a great way to immerse yourself in the world of wildlife monitoring and contribute to vital data on species' ranges and populations. By using EpiCollect and iNaturalist, citizen scientists of all skill levels can gather data from the footprints you encounter, whether in a professional or amateur scientist setting! Your gathered data can be used in two ways: developing stronger algorithms from the footprints of known animals, and mapping overall species distribution by photographing any footprints encountered in the wild.
To engage with FIT here on WILDLABS, join the new FIT group and start posting on the forum. Zoe Jewell, Amy Fitzmaurice, and Karin. R. Schwartz from WildTrack lead this group and are ready to help you integrate FIT into your conservation tech projects!
You can also find interactive tutorials on collecting footprint data on the WildTrack website.
Test Your Footprint Skills!
Below, we've compiled FIT photos from an otter, tapir, fisher, cougar, black rhino, Amur tiger, raccoon, and coyote. Can you tell them apart? Give it your best shot! (Scroll down for answers.)
Big cat or a canine species?
What about this one?
Oddly human-looking prints. From who?
The scale indicates this is quite a big species!
No, this isn't a dinosaur print, but the classic three-toe pattern is a similar shape!
Who made this little cluster of prints?
Not a housecat!
Ready to check your answers? Here you go: 1. Amur Tiger, 2. Coyote, 3. Raccoon, 4. Black Rhino, 5. Tapir, 6. Fisher, and 7. Otter.
Now can you imagine identifying individual animals and knowing their age and sex based on these photos? It's harder than it sounds, which is why that identification algorithm is so important!
Now that you've gotten your first taste of footprint tracking, head over to the FIT group and start collaborating with others in the tracking community!