A few years ago, a finback whale snotted all over me during a whale-watching trip off Santa Barbara, California. My first thought was, Wow, I smell terrible. My second thought was, Did I just become patient zero in the whale flu pandemic? My third thought should have been, I’m covered in scientific gold!
Whale snot—technically “exhaled breath condensate”—contains DNA, hormones, and a complex ecosystem of viruses and bacteria. We can learn a lot from this snot, such as what stresses whales out, who’s related to whom, and what microorganism stowaways are catching rides within these marine mammals.
So the marine research group Ocean Alliance is running a Kickstarter campaign (featuring actor Patrick Stewart) to custom-build a fleet of drones, or “snotbots,” that can hover above a surfacing whale, waiting for it to exhale.
The snotbots address two major challenges in whale research. First, the current process is absurdly expensive. Operating a fully equipped research vessel costs anywhere between $5,000 and $50,000 daily. On a good day, the team might be able to biopsy five whales. The snotbots can collect that many samples in an hour—and at a fraction of the cost.
Here’s how a snotbot gets its quarry. When whales surface, a researcher in a cheap, inflatable dingy sends the drone toward the animals. As the aircraft approaches its target, the pilot switches on the drone’s camera, then uses it to position the snotbot about 15 feet above the blowhole. If the operator gets the positioning correct, collecting the snot is almost inevitable.
“Humans blow snot out at between three to eight miles per hour,” says Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr. “Whale snot travels anywhere from 20 to 50 miles per hour. I did a test yesterday, and you can see the stuff blowing all over the camera lens.”
The other benefit of snotbots is that they allow researchers to collect samples without coming within half of a mile of the whales. This is a huge improvement on the current practice of shooting the animals with darts from crossbows for blubber and skin samples, which disturbs and stresses them, thereby contaminating the measurements of their stress hormones.
Improved stress-hormone data is the holy grail of whale conservation. Whales are acoustic creatures—they rely on their hearing in the same way people rely almost completely on their vision. In the last century, humans have transformed the soundscape of the oceans. Naval sonar can cause whale strandings, disrupt feedings, and force the giants to flee their migration routes. Air guns used in oil and gas exploration, which fire compressed air into the water every 10 to 12 seconds, have similar effects on the marine mammals.
Defenders of these practices exploit the lack of data in this area. They argue we should not ban or restrict marine noisemaking unless we can prove beyond doubt that it puts whales in existential danger. Collecting more stress hormone information—through snot, perhaps—will go a long way toward providing that proof.
“With this technology, we can go to the Gulf of Mexico to collect stress-hormone data a week before they turn on the air guns, and for a week or so after they turn on the air guns,” says Kerr. “If the whales’ stress hormones increase, the likelihood is yes, the air guns are stressing the hell out of them.”
Stress-hormone knowledge is just the beginning. Whale snot can vastly expand our library of whale DNA. It can help us with census data and indicate which whales are successfully breeding. Building a profile of the viruses and bacteria that live in a whale, and determining how those colonies differ between individuals and species, could also open up an entirely new field of research. The microbiome is all the rage right now in human biomedical research, and learning how it functions within other species may even strengthen our understanding of the human body.
Whale-research funding doesn’t approach the vast sums dedicated to studying the nooks and crannies of our intestines, though, which is why the Ocean Alliance is asking for the public’s help. They need $225,000, and you have until August 25th to contribute. If you’re interested in helping to gather some whale snot—without getting covered in it like I did—head over to the group’s Kickstarter page. You can even have a snotbot named after you or that special someone. Can you imagine a better way to say you care?
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