Scientists Made A Drone To Capture Whale Snot

Scientists Made A Drone To Capture Whale Snot
Image: ACA / NMFS #14809, CC BY-ND

Right now, whales are facing myriad threats, from pollution and getting tangled in fishing gear, to warming and acidifying oceans. To understand how those threats are affecting whales, scientists need data. And to get that data, they’ve come up with a drone that can capture whale snot.

Whales push out massive amounts of snot”or more scientifically, “exhaled breath condensate””through their blowholes. That mucus-like substance is sticky and nasty, but it’s also rich with biological information: DNA, stress and pregnancy hormones, and microbiomes, among other indicators of health.

So how do you collect whale snot? I present to you, the SnotBot.

Iain Kerr, the CEO of the nonprofit Ocean Alliance, knew that whale boogers had information would be helpful to scientists to understand whales’ health. So Ocean Alliance and Olin College of Engineering built a custom drone outfitted with petri dishes stuck to the top and it called the SnotBot (seriously). Scientists can fly the drone over a whales as they clears their blowhole, collecting massive amounts of snot with every exhale.

This may sound ridiculous, but researchers are stoked about it. For one, because the drone can be operated from far away, it allows scientists to study whales without catching them, which is also hard because they’re such big animals. And it allows researchers a chance to observe them without driving boats near them, which can freak whales out. A snot-catching drone is also pretty inexpensive, too. The drones cost about $US1,000 ($1,667), but can be used to collect data that just a decade ago would have cost $US20,000 ($33,348) or more to gather. Plus, SnotBot!

Whale conservation isn’t just important because whales are amazing creatures”which they are”but also because whales play an important role in our global ecosystem. Our fates are related and apparently so are our penchants to occasionally blow out snot. But seriously, who knew whale snot could be so exciting?