Drones, genomes and microbes give insight into whale microbiomes

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In Massachusetts, where whale watching is a popular pastime, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists used high tech drones with sterilized petri dishes attached to fly over humpback whales’ blow to analyze the bacteria living in the healthy whales. Flying the drones over the whales didn’t disturb them and allowed scientists a way to collect samples from 17 different whales. The team then sequenced the genetic material from the blow samples and found what bacteria and microbes lived in the whales’ respiratory tract. They plan on using this information for monitoring the health of the whales.

WHOI researcher Amy Apprill, lead author of the study said in a press release, “The pulmonary system is a common site for bacterial infections in whales. We see evidence of respiratory illnesses frequently in stranded and deceased animals. Until now, little has been known about the normal respiratory microbiome of healthy whales.”