Whale snot’s a valuable commodity in certain corners of the scientific community. The marine mammal’s nasal mucus is rich in DNA, viruses, and bacteria, and can help researchers to assess the health of certain specimens while also potentially gaining an understanding of trends within the whale population at large.
Obtaining a fresh sample of the stuff, however, poses certain challenges. Crawling into a whale’s blowhole with a cotton swab is not a simple method, and in the past researchers have relied on getting their samples from whales that are either beached or already dead, the ABC reports. These obviously aren’t ideal conditions when it comes to conducting biological research—and so Australian scientists have come up with a new way of getting the snot they need.
For Macquarie University marine biologist Vanessa Pirotta, that means flying drones through snotty blowhole sprays. Vanessa’s waterproof drone comes fitted with a petri dish, which it uses to pick up samples of whale mucus as it flies over humpback whales migrating along Australia’s east coast.
"The drone is flown through the densest part of the whale snot, collecting the sample," she told the ABC. "And then the lid shuts and the drone is flown back to the boat and we're happy scientists back on the boat."
That snot can then be used to examine lung bacteria—thus determining whether a lung is healthy or not—and viruses from the animal in question. Further to that, Vanessa’s hoping her snot-collecting drone can be used to investigate population trends of the endangered Southern right whale: specifically, why they’re thriving so much on the West Australian coast while apparently diminishing in the waters of south-eastern Australia. Snot may well be the key to unlocking that mystery—and drones provide a method of getting access to it without causing any harm.
"In the past, to collect health information from whales we relied heavily on whales that were either killed—which is simply unethical—or from whales that had been stranded on a beach, in which case their health was either compromised or not very well at all," said Vanessa. "This method allows us to go into the field and collect samples from live, free-swimming whales to build a better picture and to understand their health in a much more non-invasive and safer way."
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