In the mid 1970's, researchers discovered that individual whales of several species could be distinguished from each other by natural markings. Since that time, photo-identification of whales and dolphins has become the cornerstone of modern whale research. There are now hundreds of organizations around the world that maintain photographic catalogs of dozens of whale species. DIGITS (Digital Image Gathering and Information Tracking System) is a software designed to organize those catalogs for easy and efficient use.

Project Objectives

  • Develop custom-designed software and a database structure to bring our photographic monitoring of right whales into the digital era
  • Archive digital images and sightings data in a format that allows for easy storage, searching, and comparisons
  • Provide a demonstration website for the broader research community to show a powerful and user-friendly example of how to manage and process digital photographic data
screenshot of the DIGITS program
screenshot of the DIGITS program
screenshot from Digits program
screenshot of the Digits program

Research Overview

With the advancement of digital image technology and digital storage, researchers are moving away from traditional photographic slides and prints to digital images. Due to this transition to digital image technology and digital storage, each organization is faced with the substantial challenge of restructuring their systems of image comparison, archiving and retrieval.

Researchers at the New England Aquarium partnered with Parallax Consulting LLC to develop and launch a state-of-the-art software package called DIGITS. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, this application has revolutionized the processing of all aspects of digital photo-identification data. Although DIGITS was designed to manage the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, it is applicable for any individual identification study that relies on digital data and a coding system to track individuals

The DIGITS System

  • • Is server-based and allows for multiple users to manage images and data from remote locations using password protected access
  • • Allows for digital images to maintain their initial field data filenames, maintaining the link between field data and electronic data
  • • Allows for complex searches of individual whales with similar attributes and presents images side-by-side for on-screen comparisons

• Automates the majority of the data entry required when right whales are identified

• Provides screens to perform annual scarring and health assessments of whales

  • • Data can be accessed and queried through MS Access on any computer
  • • Can be accessed through a Local Area Network (LAN) or over the Internet via either a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or a web page to a Citrix server
  • Under the LAN or VPN scenarios, the DIGITS software resides on the local computer and the software will auto-update if a newer version has been released. When used through Citrix, the software resides on the Citrix server rather than a local computer. The Citrix connection also provides the fastest access for low bandwidth environments.
  • All contributors to the catalog can log on remotely and see the status of all data they contributed as well as export it to their local computer.


The DIGITS software has increased the speed and efficiency with which Aquarium researchers can monitor the North Atlantic right whale population, a critical step towards mapping out the road to population recovery. Also, because DIGITS is server based, it allowed for the development of a public web site to search the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, making right whales more accessible to a broader audience. Lastly, a DIGITS demonstration web site has been established and researchers from over 13 countries have expressed interest in exploring its potential use for their study species. The software is available from the New England Aquarium free of charge, though some cost would be required to modify it for a different species or another database structure.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DBI-0317297. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.