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Drones to Monitor Whales' Health in Australia

Drones to Monitor Whales' Health in Australia

Wednesday, 6 February, 2019 - 06:00
A blue whale surfaces to breathe in an undated picture from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Reuters
Sydney – London - Asharq Al-Awsat
In a new maritime research advance, scientists decided to use drones to gather samples of the fluids exhaled by the huge mammals and track their health.

Marine researcher Vanessa Pirotta of Sydney’s Macquarie University, says a drone has been used for the first time to collect whale mucus from humpback whales at sea in a technique that could help monitor the health of whales around the world.

"We’re collecting...that visible plume of spray rising from the whale’s blowhole, as they come to the surface to breathe," she said, according to Reuters

"This approach may ultimately enable a better understanding of the patterns and drivers of disease emergence in wild populations," Pirotta and eight co-authors say in a paper published in the journal Viruses.

The scientists collected whale blow samples from 19 humpback whales during the 2017 annual northward migration from Antarctica to northern Australia, they added.

The spray is collected in a petri dish attached to the top of a quad-copter drone, with a flip-lid opened by the craft’s pilot as the drone flies above the whale.

The method is less invasive than using a boat to get close and collecting samples on a pole, and represents an advance over past techniques that depended on samples from stranded whales or those killed for the purpose, Pirotta said.

The whale spray collected by a drone contains DNA, proteins, lipids and types of bacteria.

"We can collect bacteria, in my case, to look at the types of bacteria living in whale lungs for an assessment of whale health," Pirotta said.

In this way, drones serve as an early-warning detection system to monitor potential changes in whales’ health.

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