March 14, 2010

Want to See a Toy Helicopter Loaded with Whale Snot?

Let’s say you want to study the health of whales. To do this, you could take blood samples from them (really hard to do), or collect their poop (also hard)…or you could just get some of the whale’s snot.

Dr. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse decided getting whale snot was the easiest of the three ways. That's because when a whale comes to the surface it blows a bunch of water, air, and mucus out its blowhole! So all the doctor had to do was come up with a way to COLLECT the blowhole boogers.

At first, Dr. A.W. tried going out in a boat and waiting for whales to surface. Then she would just lean over the side of a boat to collect the falling snot. But this is pretty hard to do… plus, who wants to get caught in a mist of falling whale mucus? (Not me!)

So instead, she got some remote-controlled helicopters. After attaching collection dishes to the bottom of them, she would fly these helicopters INTO the blowhole spray that the whales blow! And that's what that picture above shows: A toy helicopter loaded with whale snot. 

If you’d like to see Dr. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse’s paper (“A novel non-invasive tool for disease surveillance of free-ranging whales and its relevance to conservation programs”), it’s over here.

UPDATE! (September 30, 2010): I am happy to announce that Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse's work won the Engineering Prize at this year's Ig Nobel awards ceremony. Congratulations!

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