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Yuck? Researchers steer drones into whales’ blowhole mist

A humpback whaleAssociated Press/File

File under: things drones can do that you never thought about.

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have used a drone to hover over — and capture — the mist spewing out of whales’ blowholes.

The researchers flew a drone called a hexacopter — it has six rotors — over humpback whales in waters off Cape Cod and around Vancouver Island, Canada, according to a Woods Hole statement.

The unmanned aerial vehicles captured samples from healthy whales’ blow — the moisture they shoot out of their blowholes when they exhale — which gave researchers insights into the bacterial groups present in the massive mammals, the institution said.

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The researchers published their findings Tuesday in mSystems, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

In the next phase of the research, scientists plan to use the drones to capture samples from whales in poor health, to compare the microbes found in their blow with that of healthy whales, the institution said.

“From this study, we have a good idea of what a normal, healthy whale microbiome looks like. Now we need to understand what the microbiome of an unhealthy whale looks like,” Woods Hole researcher Amy Apprill, lead author of the study, said in the statement. “This comparison is critical for health monitoring and disease detection.”

She said the samples collected from the 26 whales off Cape Cod and around Vancouver Island made a big splash in the research field.

“We were surprised to find a microbiome that looked very different from sea water,” Apprill said. “That’s really exciting because it demonstrates that we are obtaining a clear signal of a microbiome that’s coming from the animal.”

Researchers are racing to learn more about whale health. According to Woods Hole, at least 53 humpback whales have died along the Atlantic Coast in the past 19 months, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare an “unusual mortality event.”

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Michael Moore, a Woods Hole biologist, said in the release that the new drone technology could greatly aid researchers.

“There are very few ways to gather useful data from live large whales at sea,” Moore said. “This tool has the potential to broaden our perspective of large whale health.”


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.