Whales are the largest known animal to ever live on the planet. This makes collecting data from them a mammoth and often dangerous task. For researchers such as Vanessa Pirotta, a PhD candidate from Macquarie University, collecting data meant holding large poles over a whale’s blowhole to catch whale snot as the whale breathed out.
S’not for the faint-hearted
For a long time, this was the best way to collect snot from whales, despite being both dangerous and ineffectual. However, thanks to Ms. Pirotta a safer, cleaner way of extracting whale information has now been pioneered with the help of drone technology.
“The use of drones allows us to remotely and safely collect whale snot. We are able to operate the drone greater than 200 metres away from the boat,” Ms. Pirotta explains in an email.
“This also means we don't need to get close to the whales which allows us to observe whale behaviour without close boat presence.”
For researchers, whale snot is a treasure trove of valuable information.
“Whale snot contains a variety of health information which scientist can target. For example, I wanted to look at microbes or microbiota whereas other scientists may want to target hormones such as cortisol levels to look at stress in whales.”
Whale snot collection has proved to be a less invasive way of collecting information from whales. Previously collecting information from whales was limited to stranded dying whales or whales that had been hunted.
“A lot of work has previously be done on collecting dolphin snot also using captive animals. In short, any way of collecting health information from large, un-catchable animals such as whales is ideal for scientists,” Ms. Pirotta explains.
How does the drone work?
The drone technology developed by Ms. Pirotta is a purpose-built snot-collecting drone. It is waterproof and has four propellers. The small frame is fitted out with suction cups for fresh, sterile petri dishes. Operated by a servo, the frame can open and close. The drone is flown from the back of the boat above the whale and when in position, the petri dish is opened.
“We want the petri dish to only be open when collecting whale snot as we do not want to collect bacteria from the air or sea water. Then, once the whale surfaces, the petri dish is opened, and the drone is flown through the densest part of the whale snot, hopefully covering the petri dish (top and bottom) with a sample,” Ms. Pirotta explains in an email.
Once the snot has been collected, the petri dish shuts quickly, and the drone is flown back to the boat with the fresh sample.
For whale protection
Collecting whale snot helps researchers better understand a whale’s health. Many whale populations all over the world are struggling to recover from interactions with humans. Ship strike and the constant threat of entanglement takes a toll on North Atlantic whale populations. The collection of information via drones can determine which whale populations are having trouble recovering.
“It may also act as an early warning tool for changes in population health over time. For example, the whale snot collected in our study has described baseline data on the types of whale bacteria living in whale lungs—this is all new information,” Ms. Pirotta explains.
“We can collect snot samples over time to help look at changes in bacteria and also detect viruses, which have recently been found.”
So far, the collection of whale snot via drone has resulted in researchers finding that whales share similar snot from other whales all over the world, helped researchers identify novel viruses and found that whales are potentially acting as massive mobile monitors for ocean health.
While drone technology is not new, it has proved to be the most efficient way to cultivate further information and ensure the planet’s biggest mammals are safe.
Join Vanessa Pirotta, 2018 FameLab Australian National Winner, as she discusses her fascinating work using drones to track whale health by collecting whale snot at The Australian Museum as part of their Whales/ Tohora exhibition.
Lead Image: Drone hovering over a whale, Photography by Vanessa Pirotta