Samples of blowhole spray could save right whales from extinction, researcher says

Scientists are gathering blowhole spray to track the health of endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Scientists test whales' health by gathering residue from their blowholes

Scientists have collected droplets from the blowholes of North Atlantic right whales, hoping to learn more about the physiology of the endangered mammals. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #14603)

Scientists are gathering blowhole spray to track the health of endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Researchers at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life in Boston say it's an innovative, non-invasive way to test the animals. 

"We really have to think outside the box, take what we're given," Liz Burgess, lead author of a study on hormone levels in the blowhole exhalations of North Atlantic right whales, said Thursday.

"And respiratory vapour seems like a viable approach."

In just over a week, researchers at the centre, part of the New England Aquarium, were able to get 100 blow samples from 46 right whales along the East Coast. 

The new method outlined Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports provides "real-time" hormonal data, as opposed to fecal samples or biopsies of whale blubber, to determine the health of a whale and how marine managers can protect them.

At least 17 right whales died in Canadian and U.S. waters in 2017. About 450 right whales are left in the world. (Lisa Conger/Northeast Fisheries Science Center under NOAA Permit #17355)

Researchers collected the samples in 2015 by using a boat with a long pole. Without touching the animal, they also kept a large Petri dish over the exhaling blowhole to catch respiratory droplets.

"To be able to collect a sample from a living, free-swimming right whale is extremely difficult so it's quite an achievement."

At least 17 of the endangered whales died in Canadian and U.S. waters in 2017, and scientists believe human activity, including shipping and fishing, was the primary cause. 

Only about 450 North Atlantic right whales remain.  

A closer look on the inside 

Although the scientists have not yet received results from the droplet collection, Burgess said it's important to look at what's happening to the animals internally and lay the groundwork for future findings.

By collecting the hormone molecules, researchers will be able to look at key biological processes such as reproduction, pregnancy, metabolism and stress responses.

"If an animal is threatened or exposed to any impact, one of its first responses is … physiological," Burgess said.

She compared the technique to an early-warning system, allowing scientists to monitor and develop a better understanding of the whales' physiology before more serious problems arise, such as low calving rates, distribution shifts and higher mortality.

Impacted by human activity 

The new technique could also allow for collection of more frequent samples as the whales migrate, compared with fecal samples, which are collected when whales are feeding.

Burgess described right whales as urban animals that migrate along the eastern seaboard, where they're increasingly being affected by human activities such as shipping and fishing.

"Some of these effects are becoming cumulative," she said.

This week, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed portions of four fishery grids after right whales were spotted in the area.  

Liz Burgess is the lead author of a study on hormone levels in the blowhole exhalations of North Atlantic right whales. She conducted the research with the Anderson Cabot Centre for Ocean Life. 8:40

The closure marks the 20th fishery closure this year related to the North Atlantic right whale.

"Oceans are becoming increasingly industrialized, the impacts aren't necessarily going to be straightforward single entities," Burgess said. "They're likely to be quite complex."

With so few North Atlantic right whales left in the world, scientists have been able to collect information about each one of them over the years for comparison.

With files from the Associated Press, Information Morning Saint John