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Whale Snot

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The question is: what do you use to study the health of whales in the wild?
The answer is: not what you’d think.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgResearchBlogging.orgUnlike smaller sea mammals like seals or sea lions, it is very hard to obtain blood samples from whales without first killing them.

Meet Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, from the Zoological Society of London. She studies whale health, but has had to rely on dead, stranded or captive animals for blood samples, which are hardly representative of whales in the wild.

Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse.jpg
Figure 1: Dr. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse

So what’s the next best thing to whale blood? Well, SNOT, of course.

When a whale rises to the surface, it releases a mix of mucous, water, and gases through its blowhole. She tied herself to her boat, and leaned over the whales’ blowholes with a petri dish, and tried to collect the snot.

Did it work? Yes. But it was too dangerous. The solution? Remote-controlled toy helicopter.

She attaches some petri dishes to the bottom of the helicopter and flies it through the whale’s thirty-foot-high sneeze. The samples are taken back to the lab and analyzed for bacteria and viruses.

whale helicopter.jpg
Figure 2: One of her 3.5 foot long helicopters collecting data from the sneeze of a blue whale in the Gulf of California. Gesundheit!

But here’s what I want to know: does she offer them a thirty-foot-wide whale-sized tissue?

Acevedo-Whitehouse, K., Rocha-Gosselin, A., & Gendron, D. (2009). A novel non-invasive tool for disease surveillance of free-ranging whales and its relevance to conservation programs Animal Conservation DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-1795.2009.00326.x

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Woody Tanaka 3:35 pm 04/21/2010

    Hey, wait, I thought the japanese were doing all that actual scientific research on whales that they murder. We should have all the blood samples we need. Don’t tell me those sneaky, little bastards are lying about that…

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  2. 2. Scicurious 6:21 pm 04/21/2010

    This is incredibly awesome. Also, I want to know how she justifies toy helicopters on a grant. :)

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  3. 3. The Monkey 9:29 am 06/27/2011

    Very cool! And who doesn’t like playing with a mini-helicopter.
    Do all marine animals blow their nose this way? Perhaps in a less spectacular manner?
    We’re chatting about animal boogers today and this discussion brings up a whole new dimension.

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