Elbow Deep in Whale Poop!

Researchers at the New England Aquarium have stepped into a totally new method of studying Atlantic's threatened population of right whales - collecting and analyzing floating feces to test the population's health!

i-aa45c192b14aa9e8b1461138fa648a47-Whale Poop.jpg
I didn't know whales ate corn!

Right whales got their name because they were the "right" whale to catch during whaling's hey day, when exterminating an entire species was jolly good form. Despite rigorous efforts to protect them against whaling interests, including Japanese "research" vessels, right whale populations have not increased noticeably in the last 65 years. In particular, right whales have been beset by...

...mystery illnesses which have correlated with reduced birth rates. Only a few years ago, scientists were confounded in their efforts to locate and diagnose the reclusive beasts.

Low and behold, a solution may have bubbled up to the surface - right whale poop floats and the New England Aquarium has "developed a novel method for locating and harvesting the feces in the ocean," which apparently involves "specially trained dogs," (Nope not kidding this time. We've asked our contacts at the aquarium to clarify how the dogs factor into this equation).

i-47efc2090eaac5f4b36e40642c056e97-Whale tail.jpg
Thar' she blows!

As explained by the NEAQ: "...Our right whale researchers have collected hundreds of samples of whale feces since 2003. Laboratory tests performed on whale poop can reveal stress levels, parasites, illness and whether the whale had been exposed to biotoxins associated with red tides. We also run laboratory tests to determine whether a whale is sexually mature and if females are pregnant or nursing. This methodology has already been replicated by non-Aquarium researchers working with other animals." Finally, they "prepare the feces in three or four different recipes and just eat it for hours." (Last part may not be true).

This effort has provided an unprecedented window into the North Atlantic right whale population. Now that's dedication!

Special thanks to Jeff Ives of the NEAQ for bringing this explosive news to our attention. As he explained, "the biologists are up to their elbows in this stuff over here."

UPDATES from Jeff below:

The Aquarium only does whale feces research in the Bay of Fundy between Maine and New Brunswick. We do not do feces collection with right whales when they are in Massachusetts waters as the weather in the late winter and spring is not usually favorable. The whales are also much more dispersed when in Massachusetts waters than they are in the Bay of Fundy.

When they do use dogs, the dogs stay on the boat and indicate direction like a tracking device. They do not jump in the water and swim to the poop.

The dogs were used in previous seasons, but this year funding got tight, so they're searching for whale poop the old fashioned way--eyes, ears, nose. I spoke with one of the researchers, Jonathan, who says the current detection method consists of a spotter noticing some poop near the boat and yelling POOP! so they can net it as seen in the photo.

Now that's hi tech.

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Laboratory tests performed on whale poop can reveal stress levels, parasites, illness and whether the whale had been exposed to biotoxins associated with red tides. We also run laboratory tests to determine whether a whale is sexually mature and if females are pregnant or nursing.

If they can tell all this from a single waterlogged turd, why does the fed need a warrantless wiretapping program? Why not just install pooper snoopers in everyone's sewer lines?

Explosive ... heh...

Anyway, as for your question: the dogs (small pic) do what they do best. Smell poop.

They are trained to sniff the ocean air for the pungent aroma of right whale feces. Then they indicate a heading to the captain and they track the whale waste to collection. However, I'm sad to inform that the dog training program ran out of research cash this year, so there are no dogs on the water with the current Lubec team.

Next year hopefully!

Warren, there are people who do work as 'pooper snoopers' in the sewer lines. There was coverage of it a few months ago in Popular Science?

[internet searching...and...found!]

It was Popular Science. These guys specialize in 'sewer epidemiology'. You can read more here:

...it's been thought of, and may become a big part of monitoring city drug use. A rather interesting idea, and a terrible day job I would think.

Keely - Did you have to be the one who drug us down to the sewer level?! ;)

Hi everyone! Here are some additional Update from NEAQ researchers:

Regarding the mysterious disease possibility: The reduction of right whale birthrates could have rooted from a number of different sources including reduction of food supply, exposure to biotoxins or other marine contaminants or a genetic defect caused by inbreeding. Disease, although most commonly used as the scapegoat for unexplainable occurrences, may not be the culprit in this cause.

Regarding Japanese whalers: Also, Japanese whalers are not a direct threat to the North Atlantic right whale. The right whale is protected through an international moratorium. Through the JARPN project researchers are only allowed to kill Sperm, Sei, Brydes and Minke whales.

Please don't let this comment thread die!

This reminds me the research done on orangutans in Borneo - the ape group was sampled for urine over a period of many months, to see how the fruit availability and the seasonal chages in vegetation affected their diet. (The researchers could tell from the analysis if the orangutans were hungry because they had keto-metabolites in their urine, and stress-related hormons like cortisol spiked up if males competed with one another, etc.) A great published paper and a TV documentary too - but the field work included spreading out "raincoats" under the trees where the apes slept at night to collect and channel their urine. To observe with binoculars which ape is peeing where that night - and if he is male and how old is he, etc. Then packing up and moving the peed-over collectors to a new location in the evening, as chosen by the whim of those orangutans.

Now these are pretty smart apes - I wonder what they made of it - the crazy humans sneaking behind them everywhere and spreading their giant plastic urinals on the ground right at the same spot - as soon as the group found a nice quiet corner of the forest and hoped to get some sleep...

is it true that whale dong breathes and why and where can i find a picture

By lameka tillman (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink