Conservationists Use the “Snot-Bot” Drone to Protect Endangered Whales

Conservationists have devised all sorts of ingenious ways to track mammals and birds in the wild in the hopes of ensuring their future survival.  With the rise of drones, those methods have become cheaper, more effective and less threatening to the species under observance.  Drones can collect data on animal and bird migratory and mating patterns and can even identify and track individual members of a herd or flock by tagging them from a distance.  But the Ocean Alliance, which deploys a drone at sea to collect the mucus from endangered whales, may have come up with one of the most intriguing data collection methods to date.

Dubbed – somewhat humorously – as the “Snot Bot,” the drone flies over the whales as they swim through the ocean and dives over their spout hole as they surface to release their mucus-laden spray.  The spray is collected on a special Petri dish and whisked to the organization’s scientific laboratory for further analysis.

The Alliance claims its remotely piloted drone’s maneuvers are unobtrusive and barely noticed by their research subjects – mainly large gray and humpback whales.  But their “exhaled breath condensation”  – popularly known as “whale snot” – offers a goldmine of data on the whales’ biology, including their DNA, microbiomes, and hormones.  Researchers at the Gloucester, MA-based organization say this kind of data – which can identify threats to the marine mammals from ocean pollution as well as the effects of climate change on their long-term survival is nearly impossible to collect from a live whale.

In the past, Ocean Alliance researchers did try to collect data using much cruder methods — with mixed success.  Alliance CEO Iain Kerr says the organization used to follow whales in the open sea on a large boat, and armed with a specially-equipped crossbow, would try to penetrate the whale hide with a blunted “collection arrow.”  The method was not only invasive but would only provide “legacy” data –”data on where the whale had been but not on its current conditions,” Kerr says.

Replacing boats and arrows with drones and cameras has been a boon to the group’s efforts, not only allowing for improved data collection but also reducing fuel and labor costs and better protecting whales from harm, he adds.

In recent months, the Alliance has gotten even bolder with its drones – swooping down on whales in Mexico to place a small remotely-controlled video cam on their back that can film their movements underwater and help researchers better understand how whale habitats are affecting their health.  “Whales aren’t like rhinos on the Serengeti, they are really difficult to study because they spend so much time living deep below the surface,” Kerr says.

Whales aren’t the only marine species of interest to conservationists.  Other organizations are tracking the migratory and mating patterns of dolphins and sharps with high-powered zoom cameras that can film their movements several meters below the water’s surface.  In Madagascar, drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras are tracking the movements of endangered lemur monkeys at night.  Many other species, including endangered Cockatoo birds, are also becoming subjects of intensive drone study,

But whales – perhaps due to their advanced intelligence and the continued multi-leveled threats to their survival, including legal and illegal whale hunting – are of special interest to many conservationists, According to the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, some 20 species of whales are either critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable and another 27 species are considered “data deficient.”

So far, the Alliance has collected more than 400 blow samples from 6 species of endangered whales but with the help of a growing number of international partners, the group eventually hopes to collect “snot” data on all of the current species in peril.

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