Scientists use drone to sample whale breath and snot To study the microbiome of humpback whales

Scientists flew a small drone over the blowhole of a few humpback whales in the US and Canada to collect the microbes living inside their breath. Sampling the community of microbes and bacteria living inside whales, called the microbiome, can help us better understand what makes a healthy whale, and what happens when a whale gets sick.

In the new research, published this week in the journal mSystems, scientists describe 25 species of microbes found in each humpback’s breath they sampled. Though they don’t know how exactly these organisms affect the health of the whales yet, many of the same microbes are often found in other marine mammals, suggesting they play a role in keeping the animals healthy. The study is also the latest example of how drones can help scientists in their quest to conserve species: in Hawaii, botanists are also using drones to hunt down rare plants in hard-to-reach places like cliffs.

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Just like humans, animals have a microcosm of organisms inhabiting their bodies — which help keep them healthy. While we’re just starting to explore the human microbiome and its functions, very little is known about the microbiome of whales, especially inside their breathing organs, where a lot of infections occur. So researchers decided to sample the spray of water and snot coming out of the hole atop the whale heads, which the animals use to breathe at the surface.

Usually, whale breath is collected by approaching the animals — which can be up to 60 feet long, in the case of humpbacks — with a small boat, and then holding 23-foot pole with a collection plate above the blowhole. That’s obviously time-consuming and dangerous — for people and whales. In search for a better method, scientists used a remote-controlled hexacopter equipped with a petri dish. They then flew it a few feet over the blowhole of 26 healthy humpback whales off the coast of Cape Cod in the Atlantic Ocean and Vancouver Island in the Pacific.


The researchers found 25 species of microbes in the breath of all whales, including 20 that were previously found in other marine mammals. That suggests that those organisms are connected to the creatures’ respiratory health, according to the study, although it’s not exactly clear how. But understanding what makes the microbiome of a healthy whale can help us monitor their health, identify dangerous pathogens in the future, and possibly understand how pollutants in the water can affect whales.

That’s key for their conservation. A number of large whales are listed as endangered or critically endangered, including some humpback whale populations off the coast of northwest Africa and Central America.



The secret of dolphins’ speed is not skin-deep, study shows


Does dolphin skin have secret powers that allow the flippered mammals to outrace boats? Scientists looking to answer this question have found that dolphins achieve impressive swimming speeds based on muscle power alone.

The findings, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, solve a longtime mystery on the nature of dolphin propulsion.

Researchers have wondered how dolphins manage to swim so fast at least since the 1930s, when British zoologist James Gray marveled at reports of one dolphin’s apparent speed as it outraced a boat. Gray calculated that the dolphins simply didn’t have the muscle power to swim that fast; they must somehow use a trick of fluid mechanics to overcome the drag that would hold them back. This observation became known as Gray’s paradox.

The answer to Gray’s paradox was thought to lie in dolphins’ smooth skin. Could it manipulate water flow to reduce drag and improve speed? (It’s a reasonable idea – after all, speedy mako sharks have skin covered in tiny toothlike scales that help them make hairpin turns by controlling flow separation.)

The lure of such potential drag reduction spawned a host of research, said lead author Frank Fish, a biomechanist at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. This was particularly true in the 1960s during the Cold War, when both Russia and the U.S. coveted the dolphin’s supposed secrets.

“Cold war paranoia afflicted both Pentagon and Kremlin in the form of wildly exaggerated estimates of the speeds of each other’s submarines,” Duke University biomechanist Steven Vogel wrote in the book “Comparative Biomechanics: Life’s Physical World.”

Researchers tried to pick apart the secrets of dolphin skin in a number of ways, wrapping rubbery artificial skin around test torpedoes and even dragging naked young women (or “nekkid leddies,” as referenced here) through the water to see how their skin responded to the drag. (Women have more fatty tissue under their skin than men do, which gives their skin more “dolphin-like” properties, Fish said.)

Nowadays, to watch how animals affect the flows around them as they move through water, researchers often fill a water tank with 10-micron-wide glass beads and shoot a laser sheet through the water to illuminate the beads and watch how the animals’ movement affects the beads and thus disturbs the flow.

You can do this with jellyfish, not so much with dolphins, Fish said – there are concerns about what would happen if the laser hit them in the eye or if they ingested the beads.

“It’s one thing to work with a fish, it’s another thing to work with a dolphin – we tend to protect them,” Fish said. “Dolphins are very pampered animals, when we keep them.”

Luckily, Fish said, engineer Timothy Wei of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had been working with other “pampered animals” – Olympic swimmers – and had come up with an ingenious and low-cost solution to track them as they swam.

Instead of using glass beads, Wei used air bubbles. Here’s how: They got a garden soaker hose that’s typically used to water lawns and pumped air through it from an oxygen tank. The tiny bubbles that came out of the hose’s pores created a sheet of bubbles that, when illuminated by sunlight, could act just like the reflective glass beads in the laser sheet.

The scientists had Primo and Puka, two retired Navy dolphins, swim along the length of the bubble wall. After watching the patterns created in the bubbles, the scientists realized that the bottlenose dolphins were producing an incredible amount of power – enough to overcome the enormous drag they were experiencing.

So the answer to Gray’s paradox? There was no paradox, Fish concluded.

“First off, we can stop looking for a magic mechanism to reduce drag,” Fish said. “There may be ways to reduce drag, but the dolphin [skin] isn’t going to show us those.”

In any case, he added, “it basically starts to tell us things about how well designed these aquatic athletes are.”

It could mean that flippered robots could theoretically be an alternative to the propeller-driven kind, said Fish, who said he’s currently working on creating a manta ray robot.

In the meantime, the bubble method of tracking animals’ flow patterns might be useful in testing larger animals in the open ocean – it’s certainly more portable than the laser-and-beads method, Fish said.


How do pink river dolphins reproduce?


Reproduction in pink river dolphins start when a couple of dolphins mate to start the gestation period.

-This period can take from nine to twelve months when mothers give birth to the baby dolphin.

-Pink river dolphins reproduce at the end of October to the beginning of November, therefore giving birth between May and July when the water in the Amazon is at its highest.



Open water sea lion interaction

When you love your job…take it to the highest level, when your animals trust in you, decide to work wherever you take them and give you a 100% back…that is a successful animal trainer.

That…is when you really feel proud of yourself and the work you have done!

Congratulations to the trainer Abel Reyes and his team

Well done!





Let’s say you have done your research and you have reached your conclusion… that you want to be a dolphin trainer!


This would be my first piece of advice to you.

Observe your animal, bear in mind that all of them have different characters.

Observe the animal you are being assigned very closely, it is important that you observe all of them and the way each one behaves, but in particular, the one you are going to work with. Every time you have any spare time, sit down close to the animal and observe all their behaviours, their body language and interaction with other animals.

Environments affect behaviour, predict your animal’s behaviour, keep your eyes scanning around while working with yours and be aware that another animals’ behaviour affects your animal behaviour. If there is anybody or an even an object around, that your animal is not comfortable with, try to take them to another area or environment where they are more relaxed. As with children, once your animal has realized that you are always protecting them, then they will trust you.

Communication skills are paramount; during your sessions, your animal’s behaviour depends on the quality of the communication you have with other trainers and how aware you are of your surroundings. Anticipation and planning ahead is very important when handling your animal. Dolphins love doing different things, they are very cheeky, they also get bored quickly with the same thing over and over, but when they are learning something new, they are usually concentrated, curious and excited for what may come next. Some behaviours take time and concentration. Take as an example, husbandry behaviours (medical behaviours) these are examples where a high level of concentration from your animal will be required and they also need to be very relaxed.

Before you start training any behaviour, you must communicate with other trainers and let them know how long you are going to take and where the training is going to take place. State the starting time and ending time, before you end, you need to make eye contact with other trainers and let the animals go at the same time, so your animal does not go and interrupt any other trainer’s session. This is the best way of getting the best discipline, instilling good habits in your animals that results in a good quality training session and a positive outcome for all.

Do not copy other trainers, do not assume because the animal you are working with would let another trainer to put their hand in their mouth you can do the same. Different animals have different relationships with other trainers, you must gain and build your animals trust and this will depend on the way that you treat them, just like any other human or animal interaction. Observe the best trainers work, but do not confuse the best one with the one in charge. Observe closely and choose what would you do different, take a notepad with you and write it down, one day you will need it.

Many trainers underestimate and misunderstand the importance of Operant Condition (Positive Reinforcement), when to use it and how to use it. Some trainers just read through it to “tick that box,” but there is a big different between reading it to pass a test, perhaps making your supervisor happy or to take him/her off your back and really using it properly. Supervisors and other trainers, should be watching each other and making sure that everything is right and that your work is acceptable. To assist you, they should always make sure, that the other trainers handle their animals fairly and in the best way possible, especially if you are a new assistant. Trainers must learn the techniques of positive reinforcement to apply it successfully, for the benefit of the animals and you.


What to do in a competitive environment such as a dolphin training job?

Responsibilities: this is what is going to set you apart from the crowd and so you are not classified as just being one of the usual group of trainers.

Be independent: consistent, practice good discipline, but also be very patient with your animal and others.

Be confident: trust yourself, do what your gut tells you, usually when you have researched well and apply good principles, it is the right thing to do.

Ask: if you have doubts; ask, there is not such a thing as silly questions.

Improve:  progress is what makes people happy, make sure you are going forward and improving your skills.

Study: make sure you find time to study, allocate the best time for you to improve your knowledge. The world is constantly evolving, updating information with new research, so you need to keep your knowledge fresh.

Want it: make sure whatever you do is the best for you and then do it to the best of your abilities. Whatever the circumstances, never think you are not capable of doing whatever you desire. You just have to want it!