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What We Can Learn from Whale Breath

Researchers are trying to culture what comes out of blowholes from whales and dolphins, to see if they can use them as diagnostic tools

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Image: Rob

Studying creatures that live in the sea can be really difficult. Finding them is hard, and collecting data from them can be even harder. Scientists don’t want to have to capture animals to get information about them, but there is a limit to how much they can learn without coming in contact with the animal or taking samples. So researchers at the Mystic Aquarium are looking to a new source of information about seafaring creatures: their breath.

The New York Times reports that researchers are trying to culture what comes out of blowholes from whales and dolphins. Rebecca Kessler writes:

While blood is the gold standard in physiological research, it can be hard to obtain — and all but impossible from large whales. Three new studies describe advances in breath analysis, which may prove to be the next best thing.

“I suspect that everything that’s in the blood is in the blow, just at much lower concentration, a little harder to measure,” said Kathleen Hunt, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston. “All kinds of goodies that we could learn a lot from that we’ve never been able to get from these animals.

Starting in the aquarium, researchers hope to bring the tools and tricks they use out into the wild. One recent review paper included blow samples as one of a number of promising new, non-invasive ways to get information about whales.

It’s not just whales who are getting breathalyzed for their own health, either. Researchers have been working on breath analysis for human diseases for a long time now, and doctors can diagnose diabetes and asthma sometimes from a simple whiff. It turns out that trainers and veterinarians do the same for whales. Now they’re just trying to quantify it.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Tail of the Whale
Swim With The Whales

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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