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How to study the inside of a humpback whale's blowhole? Drones, of course

Scientists are learning more about humpback whales using drones.
Scientists are learning more about humpback whales using drones. Yutaka Seki/Creative Commons

Scientists studying animals must constantly weigh the importance of collecting information about habits and health while doing their best to avoid disturbing the creature and its natural environment.

Enter: the drone. Scientists with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution used unmanned aircraft to fly straight through the blow expelled from humpback whales to study the animal’s microbiome (the microorganisms that live inside - and with - the whale). Along with colleagues from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Vancouver Aquarium and SR3 Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, the scientists were looking to establish a baseline for what a healthy whale looks like.

Before drone technology, scientists had to manually follow whales in a boat until they were close enough to collect a sample by hand. According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, this required dangling a petri dish at the end of a long pole in the path of the humpback’s blow.

“The conservation and management of large whales rely in part upon health monitoring of individuals and populations, and methods generally necessitate invasive sampling,” the scientists said in a published study on their work, published in mSystems, a journal from the American Society for Microbiology.

The study explained how the scientists used a hexacopter to fly above whales in two different areas to capture the blow. They gathered data from nine whales near Vancouver, Canada and 17 whales near Cape Cod, Mass., according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“In the first extensive examination of the large-whale blow microbiome, we present surprising results about the discovery of a large core microbiome that was shared across individual whales from geographically separated populations in two ocean basins,” the study said. “Overall, the discovery of a shared large core microbiome in humpback whales is an important advancement for health and disease monitoring of this species and of other large whales.”

There are around 60,000 humpback whales in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund. They weigh an average of 80,000 pounds and are an average of 50 feet long.

NOAA scientist John Durban said drones were originally being used to take photos of animals in hard-to-reach locations.

"Because of the stable flight performance of our hexacopter, we quickly learned that we could reliably fly through whale blow without disturbing the animals,” Durban said, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Instead of dangling a petri dish above the animals using a pole, Durban pilots a drone that has a petri dish on top. The microbiome was then studied, to give scientists a better idea of the kinds of organisms that live inside a humpback’s blowhole, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said.

According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the scientists hope to use the data gathered by the drones to compare the microbiome of healthy whales to that of unhealthy whales.