What do marine mammals, specifically humpback whales, and drones have in common? The answer depends on your perspective. If you’re with the National Park Service, likely you hope the two never meet. If, however, you’re a biologist, it’s possible you might use one to study the other.

That is exactly what Amy Apprill, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, is doing.

Within the last few years, scientists have found that there exist, on and in humans, colonies of symbiotic microbes that play a crucial role in supporting people’s immune systems and metabolism. The discovery of a respiratory microbiome in whales could possibly help s scientists in monitoring the whales’ health. And if we look at whales as an indicator species, we can gauge the health of the ocean by examining and monitoring the health of the whales. Dr. Apprill is doing this by examining the microbiomes in the exhalation of humpback whales. The thorny question is “How?”

In the past, scientists would maneuver a boat alongside whales, and using a boom or pole with a petri dish attached, would collect samples. The problem with this technique is that it is obtrusive and stressful for the whales, and these actions can alter the whale’s behavior. WHOI collaborated, along with the Vancouver Aquarium, and NOAA, to devise a means of collecting the exhalation that was more stealthy and potentially less stressful. The result is a custom-built hexacopter which is remotely-operated and hovers over a whale. The collecting was successful, with the whales behaving as though the drones weren’t there. The resulting samples should provide a baseline for what a normal, healthy humpback whale looks like.

A more detailed article on this study can be found here: http://www.whoi.edu/news-release/whale-blow-microbiome

Image: Stockphoto from Pixbay