Revolutionising study of marine species with innovative technology


Macquarie University researcher Vanessa Pirotta has led the design and
construction of a new system that can be fitted to a custom-built, waterproof
drone in order to sample whale microbiota 
– the combination of natural
bacterial colonies that live in an organism – by flying over and collecting the
exhaled vapours from their blowholes in a non-invasive manner.


“In the marine environment, drones are revolutionising the way
we study marine species. Due to their small size, the fact that they cause
minimal disturbance to wildlife and offer improved safety for both operators
and animals, makes them an attractive option for studying marine wildlife. In
addition to collecting health information, we were also able to capture a
different perspective of whale behaviour off Sydney not seen from a boat. We
saw whales interacting with each other underwater and huge numbers of dolphins
escorting whale pods as they travelled north. We hope to optimise our device,
and develop new ways to answer questions about whales and other marine species
as well,” Pirotta concluded.


conjunction with drone experts from Heliguy Pty. Ltd. Sydney, sea vessel experts, microbiologists and marine biologists, we
developed a low-cost system which
incorporates a sterile petri dish with a remotely operated and novel ‘flip
lid’. This can be attached to a drone along with a GoPro camera in order to
sample whale blow with minimal disturbance to the whales,” explained lead
researcher Pirotta.


“This system
allowed us to collect samples safely and reliably, by minimising external
contamination such as air and seawater from outside the blowhole,” Pirotta


previous collection of mucus from whales has involved taking samples from
beached animals, where their health is already compromised, or from a boat
which comes with its own set of risks, such as close approaches to very large
animals, the researchers in this study were able to non-invasively collect
mucus microbiota samples from 59 actively northward migrating humpback whales
off the coast of Sydney.


“Gathering baseline
information of whale lung microbiota provides a snapshot of health information
from an animal that is uncatchable. This means we will be better able to
monitor the health of recovering whale populations over time and look for
changes in their environment. We also hope to adapt this method to learn more
about the health of other species such as the much smaller Southern right whale
population,” said Pirotta.