Drones (UAVs) Are Changing the Face of Ecology

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/1st August 2018, Catherine Offord/ Unmanned aerial vehicles allow researchers to collect huge volumes of biological data cheaply, easily, and at higher resolution than ever before. Last winter, about 3 nautical miles from Sydney, Australia, marine biologist Vanessa Pirotta was finally able to collect some snot. A PhD student at Macquarie University, Pirotta had been searching for ways to monitor whale health using blow—“that visible plume of spray rising from a whale’s blowhole,” she tells The Scientist.

Once considered just water, “it turns out [blow] is a juicy organic mixture of health information, which contains material such as DNA, hormones, and bacteria that we can collect to provide a checkup on a whale’s health.” Getting close enough to healthy whales to collect this material manually is both dangerous for researchers and disruptive to the cetaceans. Collecting samples from stranded animals, meanwhile, biases researchers’ understanding toward whales that are likely to already be sick, Pirotta says.

But a collaboration with Alastair Smith, a senior drone technician and pilot at Sydney-based company Heliguy, offered another option. On four occasions in 2017, Pirotta and Smith went out on a boat to fly a specially modified drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), over humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) surfacing during their annual migration north. A lidded, remote-controlled petri dish on the drone could be flipped open just as a whale released a plume, then closed again to prevent contamination of the sample on the flight back to the boat.

Last December, Pirotta and colleagues published a description of their approach, along with initial analyses of the microbiota resident in at least 48 whales’ respiratory tracts. This summer, they reported that an analysis of just 19 whale blow samples had turned up six new virus species, from five viral families. These data, along with results collected in another snotbot project by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the Northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, are helping to provide critical new insight into whale biology. “People are starting to do this with other populations, which is great because we can compare what we find with their whales,” Pirotta says. “But we’re just starting to build that catalog of bacteria. . . . We’ve just scratched the surface of what can be done.”

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