A penchant for high-pitched whistling long ago earned them the nickname “canaries of the sea,” but it turns out that pleasant song isn’t the only thing beluga whales emit that interests Arctic scientists.
“The tentative title of my project is ‘Snot for science: using blow to analyze stress hormones in the western Hudson Bay beluga population,'” Justine Hudson, a master’s student in biological sciences at the University of Manitoba, said via Skype from Churchill, Man.
Hudson spent the better part of July out on the cold waters of Hudson Bay near Churchill, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Each day in the field was punctuated by magical moments when a pod of inquisitive belugas got close enough to sneeze into one of the petri dishes Hudson or her field assistant hung out of the back of a Zodiac boat.
The sampling method is used to measure genetics, infectious disease, stress and reproductive hormones. It isn’t altogether new — versions of it have been used to study bigger whale species; earlier this month, one group of scientists used a drone “snot bot” to collect spout samples from humpback whales in a National Geographic special filmed off the coast of Alaska.
“I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘I want to go catch snot,'” said Hudson.
Non-invasive booger snatching
What’s novel about her research, Hudson says, is the sheer number of samples she is able to collect in a way that is less invasive than traditional methods.
Much of the research that’s been done in the past on stress levels in belugas has involved arguably more stressful interactions with humans.
“Blow has been collected [from] beluga but they’ve been captured or restrained. This is the first time it’s been done in a population that hasn’t been influenced at all.”
Scientists have also relied on subsistence-based Indigenous hunters in the North turning over carcasses after a harvest for analysis. But that kind of research is a slow slog and may only yield a handful of good samples in a given field season.
Hudson sampled more than 100 belugas in one month this summer.
“The whales here are so friendly and so curious. A lot of other places where they are hunted they’re not as curious because you kind of learn to stay…