Waiting for a whale to exhale
Why this alum is analyzing the breath of marine mammals
“Essentially, I study whale snot,” said Justin Richard ’03.
He was talking about research he’s conducting at the Mystic Aquarium that looks at whether the breath, or “blow,” from whales and other marine mammals can substitute for more difficult and invasive tests of their health like blood sampling.
A New York Times article last fall on the blow-sampling technique included a photograph of Richard holding a Petri dish over the blow hole of a beluga whale at the Mystic Aquarium. Richard has worked at the nationally famous aquarium for nearly 10 years as a whale trainer and is now enrolled in a doctoral program in integrative and evolutionary biology at the University of Rhode Island (URI). As part of his work at the aquarium he taught the white Arctic marine mammals to voluntarily submit to regular health screenings.
As the Times article pointed out, doctors have long sniffed their patients’ breath to diagnose a variety of diseases. Devices could soon be used to scan exhaled air for signs of a host of human ailments, including asthma, cancer, diabetes and tuberculosis.
An article on Richard at the URI website explains that the current standard for collecting data on the health of wild belugas is to capture them and fire a biopsy dart into the animal. The blow-sampling approach could be valuable in areas where researchers aren’t allowed to catch the animal, Richard said. Because of climate change, some populations of the Artic whales are already threatened.
“(The breath test) will help scientists answer questions that they haven’t been able to answer before because they can’t access the animals,” like the sex rate and pregnancy ratio of a particular population of whales, he said.
“Other researchers have studied whale hormone levels in their blow, but without the ability to compare them to blood samples, it’s a challenge to understand what these levels mean for a whale,” he said. Because of his access to the belugas at Mystic Aquarium, he can do both. He also intends to spend time in Arctic Canada during the next two summers to try to catch exhale samples from wild beluga whales.
When he finishes his doctorate in four or five years, he hopes to become a college professor and continue his research, he said.
“I want to study many marine mammals. I would find a great deal of value and satisfaction in being able to contribute to their conservation.”