How scientists are monitoring whale health by using drones to collect their blow

phys.org | 1/12/2018 | Staff
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Macquarie University researchers have led the design and construction of a new system that can be fitted to a custom-built, waterproof drone in order to sample whale microbiota – the combination of natural bacterial colonies that live in an organism – by flying over and collecting the exhaled vapours from their blowholes. The collaborative research project, which involved an array of experts including drone pilot and engineer Alastair Smith from Heliguy Pty. Ltd., Sydney, sea vessel experts, microbiologists and marine biologists, used the customised drone collection technique in order to monitor the health of whales in a non-invasive manner.

"In conjunction with drone experts, we have developed a low-cost system which incorporates a sterile petri dish with a remotely operated and novel 'flip lid'. This can be attached to a drone along with a GoPro camera in order to sample whale blow with minimal disturbance to the whales," explained lead researcher Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University.

System - Samples - Contamination - Air - Seawater

"This system allowed us to collect samples safely and reliably, by minimising external contamination such as air and seawater from outside the blowhole," Pirotta added.

Whereas previous collection of mucus from whales has involved taking samples from beached animals, where their health is already compromised, or from a boat which comes with its own set of risks, such as close approaches to very large animals, the researchers in this study were able to non-invasively collect mucus microbiota samples from 59 actively northward migrating humpback whales off the coast of Sydney. They then extracted bacterial DNA in the lab and sequenced the samples to identify the specific bacteria present in a sample. Interestingly, in addition to having bacteria that is usually found in mammals, the humpback whales were also found to have bacteria in their blow mucus from...
(Excerpt) Read more at: phys.org
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