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By Kirsten Weir
Rosalind Rolland, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, laughed as she admitted: “I never thought I'd be this deep into whale doo-doo.” Studying dung, it turns out, is a wonderful way to learn more about the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Rolland is a veterinarian by training. She began to study right whales in the late 1990s, when the troubled population's reproductive rate plummeted. But she was unable to collect blood samples from her subjects. “Right whales are difficult patients,” Rolland said. “They're pretty unruly and they weigh 50 tons (45,360 kilograms).”
Fortunately, she was familiar with the work of Sam Wasser, a University of Washington conservationist who pioneered the idea of using dogs to locate the scat of endangered land animals, and later whales. So Rolland began collecting right whale droppings with a net in the Bay of Fundy. It was Wasser who suggested she start using dogs to find more samples. At first, she said, she thought he was crazy. But it occurred to her that she was often depending on her own nose to locate samples. “Right whale samples are incredibly odiferous, to put it mildly,” she noted. In the open ocean, right whale scat - which is brown, red or orange - can be difficult for researchers to locate, because it tends to break apart and sink before they find it. With their much better sense of smell, why not use dogs?
Rolland now relies on dogs, most often Fargo, a Rottweiler and drug-sniffing dog dropout, to nose in on whale droppings. Fargo joins Rolland and her team on a boat in the Bay of Fundy. When Fargo smells a sample, he becomes extremely animated, furiously wagging his little stump of a tail. The researchers follow Fargo's nose like a compass, Rolland said, until they're close enough to collect the sample.
By studying hormones in the samples, Rolland can tell whether a whale is sexually mature, pregnant, or lactating. She tests for parasites and for the presence of toxins from sources like red tides or pollution from coastal run-off. She also performs DNA analysis to identify individuals.
The North Atlantic right whale population numbers about 350, so every piece of information on the animals is significant. The individual whales are described in a database that the New England Aquarium has maintained since 1980. Now Rolland can add information about each whale's health to the known data about age, sex, and family history. “It's like putting together pieces of a puzzle,” she said. “As a vet, I think it's extraordinary to use the senses of one animal to learn more about the secrets of another. There's a nice symmetry in that.”
Kirsten Weir is a free-lance writer in Saco, Maine, who focuses on science, health, and the environment.