Drone-derived measures of respiratory microbiome and girths: non-invasive indicators of right whale health

Michael Moore (Biology Department) and Amy Apprill (Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA

Wayne Perryman and John Durban, NOAA SW Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, CA

Iain Kerr, Ocean Alliance, Gloucester, MA


Understanding the relationship between health and environmental stressors is important for large whale conservation. However, robust measurements of health are challenging to acquire, and we still lack methodology to non-invasively assess the health of large whales. Here we propose to utilize a small, unmanned multicopter drones to develop non-invasive health indices for right whales (Eubalaena glacialis and E.australis). We will remotely acquire high resolution vertical images to assess body condition from girth (fat) levels and lesion markings, and also collect blow samples of the respiratory microbiome, the assemblage of microorganisms residing in the respiratory tract, which are the most common source of cetacean disease. We plan to obtain body condition images and respiratory microbiome samples from North Atlantic right whales in the North Atlantic, a highly industrialized coastal ecosystem that is heavily overfished and is substantially used for maritime activities, and also Southern right whales in the South Atlantic and or South Pacific, which are relatively pristine habitats. Morphometric and respiratory microbiome data sets will be compared and contrasted with known ecosystem status data. This will be the first large-scale respiratory microbiome dataset collected for any species of marine mammal, and the first time a comprehensive respiratory survey is conducted on animals of different habitats and varying health conditions. The potential correlation of the respiratory microbiome with health features is of particular importance for the right whale and other endangered or threatened large whale populations, for which rigorous non-invasive health assessment techniques are limited.