Snotbot: Giving researchers and whales some breathing room  

Looking for a way to help out whales and researchers? Consider joining the Snotbot team.

There’s been a lot of news about drones being used in conservation recently, but few projects get as good as this. Sir Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame just released a video in support of Ocean Alliance’s new Kickstarter campaign for Snotbot—the ultimate non-invasive marine mammal data collection tool.

Captain Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, says their team has always been working on benign research tools to avoid sampling biases, but that the recent uptick in drone technology brought the Snotbot to life.

‘Animals give away the absolute bare minimum of information to avoid predation,’ says Kerr, ‘and physical samples are taken right after an animal has been tracked down, captured, or still smarting from a dart—creating pretty unreliable, potentially misleading data.’

So how does the Snotbot avoid bugging whales? Carrying a sterilised sponge, the tiny drone flies directly above a whale’s blowhole, then waits for its bounty—snot. For three or four good blows, the drone immerses itself in the animal’s mucous-filled exhales to soak up samples, then heads back to the research vessel. Kerr explains that it may sound silly, but snot is actually a lottery win for scientists.

‘The compound closest to the blood is mucous, especially that lining the lung,’ says Kerr. ‘Whales exhale at speeds of up to 60mph (96km), blowing out cells, bacteria, DNA, viruses and who knows what else.’ Exhales also release hormones, particularly important to determining the effect of ocean development activities, allowing policy makers to set more refined, informed laws.

Beyond the awesome whale-insight Snotbot will generate, once fully tested the bot will undoubtedly help investigate other ocean life, cycles and events— from birds and fish, to whirlpools and weather patterns. Once approved, the drones will be fairly accessible, coming in at around 1,900 GBP (3,000 USD) per device.

If their Kickstarter goal is met, the Ocean Alliance team will head out to test Snotbot on a larger scale, first observing Southern Right Whales off the coast of Argentina, then Sperm Whales in the Sea of Cortez off Mexico. Their last stop will be Alaska’s Frederick Sound, where the team will study Humpback Whales.

Kerr says this mission will showcase a comparison of data between whales with different lifestyles, hunting habits and ecosystems, creating dramatic results to hopefully secure future funding. It will also exhibit the intimate bond between humans and whales.

‘To me, whales are the ocean’s canary in the coal mine. There are 79 different species, from the baleen to the toothed, inhabiting every corner of our oceans,’ says Kerr. ‘People need to realise that if whales leave us, if our oceans die, humankind probably won’t be far behind.

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