Study of whale poop provides vital data to OSU researchers

OSU uses whale poop to monitor whale health

Whale poop is providing Oregon State University researchers with a treasure trove of information.

For the last two summers, researchers have been scooping the poop of these animals that can be more than 40 feet long and weigh more than 30 tons.

Marine ecologist Leigh Torres has been heading up the pilot project.

In a small, inflatable boat, Torres and her team follow the whales off the coast, waiting for the big moment.

"When it happens somebody yells out 'POOP!' and we all spring into action," said Torres. "Somebody gets on the net and drags it through the water and it's a really exciting moment on the boat where we're all sort of trying to coordinate our actions in order to get the best sample possible."

Drones flying above the whale alert the scientists when the whale has finished its business.

A reddish cloud in the water is a tell-tale sign.

To some, this may all seem a little gross, but to Torres and her team, it is essential whale research.

"Yeah, poop doesn't seem great, but it's actually a rich biological gold mine of information," Torres said.



The scientists use the poop to learn more about how ocean noise is impacting the whales.

They are able to analyze the hormone levels in the fecal matter to find out if the noise is effecting the whale's behavior as well as its health.

"The oceans are getting louder and louder and louder," Torres said.

Torres said the noise in the oceans has been increasing the past four or five decades because of increased ship traffic, more seismic survey exploration by oil and gas companies, and Navy sonar.

Torres says behavioral studies have already revealed that ocean noise impacts how whales communicate and it can even drive them out of areas, which could impact their populations.

"If they're so stressed out and leaving an area, does that mean they're not going to reproduce that year?" she asked.

In the future, if this research shows ocean noise is impacting whale health, Torres says new regulations may go into effect to limit that noise.

The pilot project is being funded by NOAA.

Torres says if they get the funding, she and her team will be back out collecting and analyzing more whale waste next summer.


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