Of all the weird things that people have done with remote-controlled helicopters, this tops them all: strapping on a couple of petri dishes and flying the toy through a stream of whale mucus. It’s all part of a genius idea by scientist Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, who needed a safe way to study whale diseases.
The biggest obstacle to learning more about whale health is getting a blood sample. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to whale blood without killing the whale first, so scientists have long relied on blood samples from dead, stranded or captive animals — not the best representation of whale health in the wild.
But Acevedo-Whitehouse realized there’s a great alternative that’s available in copious quantities: what comes out of a whale's blowhole. Unfortunately, she soon found that strapping herself to a boat and leaning into the water to gather the mucus was just as arduous as drawing blood.
It was then that the helicopter plan was hatched, and Acevedo-Whitehouse has spent the last year proving that it’s the perfect non-invasive tool for whale disease surveillance.
Last fall, she debuted a research paper on the process, detailing her method of finding whales and directing the 3.5-foot remote-controlled helicopter, equipped with a camera, straight through the mist.
"The whales definitely notice the helicopter," Acevedo-Whitehouse told New Scientist. "They turn on their sides to look at it. But they don't seem bothered. We are collecting very relevant biological information without harming them in the least — we don't even touch them."
Acevedo-Whitehouse and her colleagues have since been able to establish a baseline of bacteria and other micro-organisms present in whale lungs, allowing them to identify bacteria that don’t belong.