OSU Marine Ecologists Get Scoop to the Future

grey-whale“Poop, ho!” OSU marine ecologists exclaim, as they scramble into small inflatable boats and bounce along the Pacific Ocean all to chase some reddish clouds of gray whale excrement. Such hurried exuberance may strike some as strange, but scientists only have 30 seconds or so to scoop up a few grams of poop that will provide valuable insights—and we’re not just talking about their last meal.

Scientists from OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center are conducting a pilot project to investigate how gray whales respond to noise on the high seas, both from humans and the environment. Fecal samples contain genetic information as well as chemical indicators of overall health and stress of individual whales.

Lots of marine mammals use sound to communicate with each other for navigation or for finding food. Gray whales are a coastal species exposed to all sorts of noise from ship traffic, sonar, seismic surveys, and storms. Scientists are interested to see if any of these disturbances cause the whales physiological stress. Drifting hydrophones near the marine mammals pick up both natural and human sounds.

Pooper-scoopering, thanks to advances in biotechnology, is providing information that used to only be available through more invasive procedures. Scientists are now able to collect samples more frequently, in this case over a four-month feeding season. Being followed by scientists with inflatable dinghies and drone cameras at a vulnerable moment may sound discourteous, but at least it’s less intrusive than a biopsy. And scooping whale unmentionables is nowhere near as foul as blow-hole breath—or so they say.

Drones are serving as more than just defecation detectors, too. “We are seeing things through the drone cameras that we have never seen before,” said principal investigator Leigh Torres. “Because of the overhead views, we now know that whales are much more agile in their feeding. We call them ‘bendy’ whales because they make such quick, sharp turns when feeding. These movements just can’t be seen from the deck of a ship.” Exactly how ocean noise influences whale health and behavior will be a topic for years of future research.

By Matthew Hunt