Last updated June 14, 2018 at 11:52 am
A groundbreaking technique using drones to take samples from whale blowholes paints a picture of the health of the animals, but also our oceans.
Capturing the viral diversity from mammals is much more difficult when they’re aquatic animals.
Scientists from Sydney have identified six new virus species in the snot of the Eastern Australian humpback whale. But this was no easy task, using drones to sample the snot aka the exhale breath (or blow) of whales.
“Whale snot, which is that visible plume of spray rising from a whales blowhole contains biological information from whale lungs that we can sample to learn more about whale health,” said Vanessa Pirotta, a PhD student involved in the study.
“Collecting whale snot provides a snapshot of what we consider relatively healthy, free swimming humpback whales off the coast of Sydney,” explains Vanessa.
Drones collecting whale snot
This task requires some clever timing with drones. It is the first time that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been used to sample viruses. Their research about their unique method has previously been published.
Purpose-build drones were built to hold a closed, sterile petri dish that would open only as they were timed to fly right through the blow of a whale. They had animal ethics approval and a scientific licence to fly drones around whales. They also had a Civil Aviation Safety Authority approved pilot flying.
“Our remotely operated flip-lid petri dish is unique to our drones which were specially developed for this project,” said Vanessa.
The research project is a joint industry collaboration with drone experts, including Alastair Smith from Heliguy Scientific.
From whale families to virus families
The petri dishes were securely stored and taken back to the lab for analysis. RNA was extracted from the samples and sequenced. The samples revealed an extraordinary diversity of microbiota, including a wide diversity of DNA and RNA viruses.
Samples were collected from 19 humpbacks – and whilst this is a small sample, it yielded the discovery of six new virus species from five viral families. It highlights the potential of this method in sampling virus diversity in aquatic animals.
To start understanding the diversity of humpback whale blow-associated viruses, their sequences were compared with known viruses. The amino acid similarities were used to build a phylogenetic family tree showing how the viruses found in the whale snot were related.
There are many reasons why scientists are keen on understanding the whole breadth of viruses (or virome). It helps us understand the true diversity, evolution, and disease associated of viruses.
“We can use this information to compare with the health of other whale populations around the world. Samples collected over time can inform long-term changes of whales’ health,” said Vanessa, “These samples can also be compared with sick whales.”
Currently, much of marine mammal health is biased towards sick animals who already have compromised health, such as stranded animals. Viruses can thrive in healthy animals so being able to access and sample from healthy animals is important too.
“Drones provide a safer and non-invasive alternative to traditional sampling methods of health information collected from whales,” said Vanessa.
Using drones is just the beginning of the many ways that UAV technology can be applied for cetacean conservation, including whales, dolphins and porpoises. The whale researchers hope to “adapt this method to learn more about the health of more threatened whale species.”
The research was published in Viruses.