Snot Bot- it’s as gross as it sounds but it’s science!!
The SnotBot over a Blue Whale collecting samples. Courtesy of Parley for the Oceans/Ocean Alliance
  • Post published:June 15, 2020

Snot, yepp snot that thing that kids seem to be obsessed with- it’s actually helpful. Scientists have developed an ingenious way to gather biological samples without harming or interfering with whale’s or dolphin’s daily lives by using a drone. It’s also cheaper in the long run (assuming the drone doesn’t loose signal and fall into the water…) and safer for the whales as well as the scientists. The data collected will help us understand the threats that these animals are facing in the modern age.

 

The Mastermind

CEO of Ocean Alliance, Iain Kerr, had a brilliant idea after a frustrating day of trying to collect data the old-fashioned way, a skin and blubber sample with a harpoon like stick. Very large whale… tiny winy stick, great! Kerr worked with students from Olin College of Engineering to design what ended up being called the Parley SnotBot. What it is, is a drone with petri dishes, cameras and sometimes other fancy payloads attached.

Parley SnotBot with attached petri dishes post whale snot. Courtesy of Parley for the Oceans/Ocean Alliance
Parley SnotBot with attached petri dishes post whale snot. Courtesy of Parley for the Oceans/Ocean Alliance

 

How are samples collected?

Step 1- find a whale or dolphin…

Step 2- fly a drone adorned with special suckers/petri dishes

Step 3- wait for animal to surface for breath

Step 4- hover the drone just above the blow

Step 5- safely fly the sample back to you

Easy!

A SnotBot drone makes an unobtrusive collection from a surfacing whale. C. Miller Ocean Alliance
A SnotBot drone makes an unobtrusive collection from a surfacing whale. C. Miller Ocean Alliance

Why Snot?

Well, if you want to get technical about it, it’s actually called “exhaled breath condensate”. When a whale or dolphin exhales through their blow hole, small bits of lung lining escape as well as air.  Within these samples you can find DNA, stress and pregnancy hormones, microbiomes and other biological indicators of the animal’s health and ecology.

 

Success rate?

SnotBot has collected over 500 samples from five different species of whales in three areas: Southern Right Whales off the coast of Patagonia; Humpback Whales and Orcas off Alaska; Blue Whales in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico; Grey Whales on the Pacific Ocean side of Baja California. With all the encounters only three showed signs of being disturbed by the Bot!

It’s not just snot the scientists are collecting. Yes, the grossness doesn’t stop there- poop, whale poop is also being collected! Poop can also be analyzed for DNA and hormones in addition to showing what the animals are eating.

The drones also record footage and takes hi-res photos whilst in the air which, helps scientist understand physical behaviours of the animals and furthermore, ID them. The photo is quickly analyzed for shape and marks by AI software which, compares it to decades of archives by Alaska Whale Foundation and Happywhale.  This software is so smart it can estimate the animals body shape and size to provide a health score known as “Body Condition Index”. This score lets scientists know whether the animal is healthy or malnourished on site.

Humpback Whale tail identified as Two Spot or MMZ0013. Photo taken by Captain Ian with a zoom lens.
Humpback Whale tail identified as Two Spot or MMZ0013. Photo taken by Captain Ian with a zoom lens.

 

At night SnotBot drones can be flown over protected waters with a thermal imaging camera attached to look for marine mammal poachers.

In addition to all this, hydrophones can be dropped underwater to listen to the animal’s calls.

 

Future Goals

Next on the list, as if the SnotBot doesn’t do enough already, is to get the software to recognize pregnant whales and juveniles to identify where on the whale’s body they are carrying fat. This gives researchers a better knowledge of when the whales lose and gain blubber over the course of their life and feeding cycle.

In short, this drone is quite literally changing the way we see marine mammals and the way science is carried out. The information collected from Parley SnotBot will help researchers conservation efforts in protecting these animals current and future populations.

And if all that wasn’t cool enough for you Sir Patrick Stewart is a big supporter of the cause- listen to Professor X he knows what’s up…

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Izzy David

Onboard Naturalist/Biologist for SpringTide Whale Watching & Eco Tours

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More information

Instagram: snotbot

https://shop.whale.org/pages/snotbot

https://whale.org/snotbot/

https://ideas.ted.com/how-a-snot-collecting-marine-drone-is-giving-us-an-exciting-new-view-of-whale-life/

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