Toy helicopter used to sample whale health
Wednesday 12 November 2008
A scientist from ZSL has invented a highly innovative way of looking for whale diseases: flying a toy helicopter over whales’ blows to sample the gases and mucus that they exhale.
The technique is unique and ground-breaking, enabling scientists to find out what pathogens (disease-causing micro-organisms) are carried by live and apparently healthy large whales, something that was previously impossible.
This new technique will be featured in the first programme of the BBC Oceans series, transmitting this evening on BBC Two at 8pm.
Dr Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at ZSL and inventor of the technique, explained, 'Scientists have always found it difficult to study diseases in whales because of their size and obligate ocean life. Most of the studies on whale pathogens have focused on dead, stranded or captive animals, which are hardly representative of the normal population.
'I was determined to find a way to crack this problem and eventually hit upon the idea of using a vehicle that could be flown above the animals, thus finding out more about them whilst still using a non-invasive sampling technique.'
The technique involves using a three and a half foot long remote-controlled helicopter with sterile Petri dishes attached to it, which collects samples as the whale exhales. Once the equipment is prepared, the scientists search for whales to sample, scanning the ocean for their distinctive 'blows' - exhalations of air, water vapour and, in some cases, mucus, made as they reach the surface of the water.
Once one is located, a specialist model-vehicle controller directs the helicopter towards the whale and flies it directly through the blow, thus obtaining a sample of the ‘whale breath’ on the affixed Petri dishes. The DNA from the samples is extracted and analysed in the laboratory to identify pathogens expelled in the whale’s exhalation.
Dr Acevedo-Whitehouse commented, 'Currently we have extremely limited knowledge of the health of our wild, free-ranging whales. Our new technique gives us the opportunity to gain a fascinating and valuable insight into the pathogens affecting these extraordinary creatures.
'Continued application of this technique throughout the world’s oceans could provide us with the world’s first assessment of the disease status of our whale species.'
The research was undertaken in the Gulf of California and off the western coasts of Baja California, Mexico, by the Zoological Society of London, with collaborative assistance of CICIMAR, a research institution belonging to the National Polytechnic University of Mexico.