When we think about whale conservation, we can picture researchers frantically taking photos of surfacing whales, dangling over the edge of a research boat collecting biopsy samples or elbow deep into a carcass. However, recently, some whale scientists are on a mission to collect a less conventional sample: whale snot!
What is whale snot, and why do scientists want it?
In technical terms, whale snot is called “exhaled breath condensate.” Essentially, whales expel air and body cells when they breathe at the water surface, creating the characteristic blows that make them so popular. The resulting cloud of condensed air, seawater, and mucus contains DNA, hormones, and bacteria. Data from a single blow can reveal information about the pregnancy status, metabolism, stress levels, potential diseases, and toxins of individual whales. Additionally, researchers can use the genetic information from the DNA to gather counts of whale populations. These insights are essential because many whale populations are threatened by overfishing, and environmental pollutants or are still recovering from the last century’s whaling operations. Knowing how whales are doing can help nature managers design effective conservation strategies to protect vulnerable populations.
The idea for collecting whale snot came from Iain Kerr, CEO of the conservation group Ocean Alliance. Immersed in a cloud of smelly whale breath after a long day of chasing evasive whales, he realized that whale snot was a relatively easy, informative sample to collect. Together with a team from the Olin College of Engineering, he designed the glamorously named “Parley SnotBot”; a drone mounted with Petri dishes that hovers over whales to collect the particles from their exhales.
The samples get sent to a lab for later analysis, but the SnotBot can already reveal some information about the whale on the field. From photos, artificial intelligence systems can match the shape and patterns of the whale’s tail to a database for individual identification. Additionally, AI algorithms can form a 3D image of the whale’s size and shape from the SnotBot’s video footage. Such data helps determine the whale’s body condition and nutritional state. With this real-time information, scientists can make immediate connections between the whale’s condition, behaviors, and environmental factors.
What else can the SnotBot do?
SnotBot’s multifunctional use doesn’t stop there. For example, some drones patrol protected waters to look out for poachers. Some scientists use SnotBots to spot whale feces, revealing their diet, nutrition, and toxins (clearly, no substance is off-putting enough to discourage cetacean scientists from expanding their knowledge on whales). A water-proof version of the drone called the EarBot can even land on the ocean’s surface to record acoustic data. Undeniably, the drone can collect enough data to paint a pretty complete picture of whales’ physiology and behavior.
Advances in technology help advance science
The development of the SnotBot means that the long days of chasing evasive whales in noisy research boats may be over. The non-invasive nature of the drone allows researchers to collect samples without affecting the whales’ behavior. It is crucial in research to focus on stress. Collecting a model to determine the whales’ stress levels by a stress-inducing method will likely inflate the natural state. Furthermore, biopsy darts often startle their target and can scare entire pods away.
With their resemblance to seabirds, drones can often collect data from multiple whales with less observer bias. Moreover, SnotBots can quickly scan an area for whales and collect data from a distance. This saves time, fuel, and research staff and may even eliminate the need for expensive research vessels. Cetacean research is costly, and many areas are data deficient because of insufficient funding. Technology like the SnotBot opens up the possibility for more data collection by more people.
Expanding knowledge about whales is important for their own conservation and key to the protection of entire ecosystems. Whales are sentinels of the oceans; they are affected by many ecosystem processes, and they themselves influence key systems such as nutrient circulation, carbon sequestration, and trophic interactions. The information from the SnotBot gives us insight into individual whales’ conditions, populations’ health, and ecosystem functioning… Who would have thought that snot could play such an important role in protecting the marine environment?
Thank you for reading! Make sure to check our post on how whale snot can tell us about their health during their long migration.
Eline van Aalderink is a recent MSc Marine Biology graduate from the University of Groningen (the Netherlands), where she specialised in marine mammal ecology and conservation biology. She is currently working as a marine mammal research assistant/supervisor at Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation in Greece.