Researchers Collect Whale Snot By Toy Helicopter

Tissue samples from whales make it possible to research disease in the giants of the sea, and eventually, find solutions and save lives. Until now, tissue sampling was injurious and invasive. Flying snot, trapped with a toy helicopter, has changed all of that. Sounds more fun, no? – Global Animal

Planet Green, Jaymi Heimbuch.

If ever there was a fun job — and conversation starter — it’s figuring out how to collect tissue samples from live whales. On the surface it might not seem terribly interesting, but when you factor in remote control toy helicopters, whole new levels of neat open up. As do opportunities for winning Nobel Prizes.

MAKE fills us in that the recent award of the 2010 (Ig) Nobel Prize for Engineering to Dr. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and co-workers for figuring out a brilliant idea for collecting tissue samples from whales without harming or even annoying them.

The trick is in the toys. Typically, tissue samples come at the cost of injury or invasive contact with whales. But rather than via blood, tissues can also be collected via blow-hole air which is rich with, well, whale snot. Acevedo-Whitehouse and team came up with the non-invasive method of hovering a 3-foot remote controlled helicopter over a whale pod with petri dishes strapped to the bottom that can collect samples when a whale exhales. Far safer than using a boat, the helicopter is also no more invasive than if a seagull were hovering above.

The method was spurred by research into what role pathogenic microorganisms are playing in whale deaths, and monitoring diseases among whales. When certain whale species are already stressed out by human activities in the oceans, there’s no sense in disturbing them further. Instead, Acevedo-Whitehouse’s methods ensure we can monitor their health without bothering them.