A penchant for high-pitched whistling long ago earned them the nickname "canaries of the sea," but it turns out that pleasant song isn't the only thing beluga whales emit that interests Arctic scientists.
"The tentative title of my project is 'Snot for science: using blow to analyze stress hormones in the western Hudson Bay beluga population,'" Justine Hudson, a master's student in biological sciences at the University of Manitoba, said via Skype from Churchill, Man.
Hudson spent the better part of July out on the cold waters of Hudson Bay near Churchill, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Each day in the field was punctuated by magical moments when a pod of inquisitive belugas got close enough to sneeze into one of the petri dishes Hudson or her field assistant hung out of the back of a Zodiac boat.
The sampling method is used to measure genetics, infectious disease, stress and reproductive hormones. It isn't altogether new — versions of it have been used to study bigger whale species; earlier this month, one group of scientists used a drone "snot bot" to collect spout samples from humpback whales in a National Geographic special filmed off the coast of Alaska.
"I remember seeing that and thinking, 'I want to go catch snot,'" said Hudson.
Non-invasive booger snatching
What's novel about her research, Hudson says, is the sheer number of samples she is able to collect in a way that is less invasive than traditional methods.
Much of the research that's been done in the past on stress levels in belugas has involved arguably more stressful interactions with humans.
"Blow has been collected [from] beluga but they've been captured or restrained. This is the first time it's been done in a population that hasn't been influenced at all."
Scientists have also relied on subsistence-based Indigenous hunters in the North turning over carcasses after a harvest for analysis. But that kind of research is a slow slog and may only yield a handful of good samples in a given field season.
Hudson sampled more than 100 belugas in one month this summer.
"The whales here are so friendly and so curious. A lot of other places where they are hunted they're not as curious because you kind of learn to stay away from boats if you're hunted from them. If you're here, they know they can come up to boats and be fine."
Port of Churchill shipping traffic
While western Hudson Bay belugas may not be targeted by hunters, it isn't as if the area provides a totally care-free environment either.
A warming climate has already started to make a dent in ice thickness and abundance, and it's all but inevitable that less and less ice will mean more shipping traffic through Arctic waters.
In the long-term, that's likely to include the Port of Churchill, Canada's only deepsea Arctic port, although that hasn't been the case this year. Commerce has quieted ever since Denver-based Omnitrax, which owns the port and an associated rail line plagued by flooding this spring, unexpectedly laid off its workers last summer.
"All across the Canadian Arctic, shipping is going to increase and is already increasing," Hudson said. "Since the Port of Churchill is — I don't want to say completely closed, but semi-closed right now — we figured this would be a good baseline year for cortisol," a hormone released in response to stress.
"If we can make a correlation between shipping and cortisol levels, if we do see stress goes up, then I think that that would be something that could be used for conservation and management."
'Hopefully there's lots of snot'
That's where Marianne Marcoux comes in. She's Hudson's masters supervisor and a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
"Hopefully there's lots of snot," Marcoux said. "We can also use it for other purposes, maybe genetics and diseases [research]."
Marcoux is investigating the effects of shipping traffic on Arctic marine wildlife like belugas and narwhals, including tracking how things like propeller noise and ship activity influence health and behaviour.
At nearly 55,000-strong, belugas from the Churchill, Seal and Nelson river estuaries comprise the largest population in the world. They're doing well, in other words, although Marcoux said that doesn't mean we should take our eyes off the pods.
"We care about populations that aren't doing good, but we should also care about the ones that are doing good and try to preserve them," she said.
"People in Churchill are very proud of their belugas, and so I think Canadians should be proud and should care."
Belugas aren't harvested in the Churchill region, but in general beluga meat is also considered a dietary staple in the North.
"Beluga are an important food for northern communities here in Canada, so I feel like if [belugas] went [extinct] it would be tough for northern communities," Hudson said. "They're also a really important Arctic species, so if they go it's kind of an indication that something is wrong with the ecosystem."
Good sample, bad sample
Cortisol levels allow scientists to determine how stressed out or relaxed animals are. High cortisol levels have even been linked to stress and low fertility in humans.
Hudson grades her field samples on a scale. The messier the mucus, the better the sample. Samples chill out in a cooler in the boat until the end of the day, at which point they join the rest of the blow-hole samples in a freezer.
Friday was Hudson's final day in the field this season. As would be the case for any Arctic biologist, those weeks of close encounters with wildlife and the sparkling aurora borealis dancing in the northern night sky will be followed by months of toil hunched over data.
"Coming out into the field is the funnest part. After this I am going to be stuck in a lab for months," Hudson said. "Every day I'm in awe. Every day has been an amazing day, even when it's pouring rain, lightning."
Hudson doesn't know if her sampling technique will even work in the end. That will become clearer as she begins digging into the snot. She hopes it opens a whole new world of research possibilities.
Though she had never seen a beluga in the wild before this summer, Hudson said she fell in love with the melon-headed ones and can't wait to get back on the water next summer.
"Ice is covering a good portion of the Arctic for a good part of the year, so it's really hard to study Arctic marine mammals. I feel like there is so much we don't know about them, so I like the mystery and trying to figure it out."