Science requires some odd and unglamorous jobs. One of these is collecting the excretions of animals you need to study, which can be particularly tough when the beast concerned weighs 36 tonnes (39 tons) and lives underwater. Nevertheless, Fletcher Mingramm is breaking new ground in this quest.
For his PhD at the University of Queensland, Mingramm is collecting whale blow. This is neither the cetacean equivalent of cocaine, nor a product of their oral sex (which whales do engage in, although we suggest not Googling details). Instead, it is the name given to the mix of snot, air, and water released from their blowholes when whales breathe out.
Whale blow is so useful to biologists there was even an award to a team who used drones to collect it. OK, it was the somewhat toungue-in-cheek 2010 Ig Nobel award, but this is still clearly important research.
Mingramm's methodology is more low-tech, putting a bag on an extremely long pole and sailing close enough to his targets to place the bag where it may catch some of what the whales are putting out.
When collecting whale blow, you need a very long pole. Fletcher Mingramm
All this seems like a lot of effort to get something most people would rather avoid, but Mingramm hopes to use the blow to prove that we can learn a lot about whales without having to kill them, or even collect blubber cells.
"We know that Australian humpback whale populations have been increasing since people stopped hunting them, but we don't know why they are increasing at such an exponential rate," Mingramm said in a statement. “Neighboring humpback populations in the South Pacific remain low, although records show they historically had higher numbers. The fact they are not recovering well suggests something else is going on with regards to key processes, such as feeding or breeding, and this is something we need to better understand.”
Mingramm is seeking to track reproductive and adrenal hormones, which should tell us whether the whales are fertile, pregnant, or stressed. Even being able to determine the sex of the whales, which he told IFLScience is very difficult to do visually, would be a start.
The blow samples Mingramm collects are compared with skin samples taken by firing darts that bounce off the whales' skin. “There's pressure in the scientific community to find non-invasive methods,” Mingramm told IFLScience. If he is able to prove he can get the same information from the blow as the skin, future whales won't need to be darted anymore.
Mingramms told IFLScience that he has an hour to collect a tissue biopsy and blow sample per whale. “It sometimes happens in twenty minutes under good conditions and with helpful animals,” he said. More often, however, it proves challenging, even with specially designed bags filled with a sterile nylon mesh that capture the faintest traces of blow. Some whales just don't know when to breathe out.
Maybe Mingramm should be seeking funding from Pornhub. What he's doing may not be sexy, but the puns are endless.