As population numbers of Southern Resident orca whales dwindle dangerously low, scientists have been forced to get creative with ways to treat and track the endangered creatures.
Researchers tasked with monitoring the whales have gone to extreme lengths — including developing new drone technology, weaponizing antibiotic dart guns, and even employing a canine helper — to individually attend to any sick porpoises in a pod, according to a New York Times report.
The Southern Residents is the smallest group of killer whales that feed on fish in the Pacific Ocean. The mammals were listed as endangered in 2005 amid worsening pollution, depleted salmon supply, and increased boat danger. Since then, the animals’ population has been in decline.
Only about 75 of the whales remain even as conservationists fight to keep them alive.
A Southern Resident, swimming in the Salish Sea during September, was the beneficiary of the hard-fought innovations of researchers when they discovered a foul smell emanating from its blowholes. Scientific experts have told The Times that bad breath in a whale could be an indication of more serious health problems.
While the stinky smell was cause for concern, the situation also offered researchers the serendipitous opportunity to try out a new “breath-collection drone,” the outlet reported, describing the device as a “flying petri dish” that can be maneuvered into an Orca’s plume.
The device is still in development, but the whale’s foul breath allowed researchers a chance to test the drone in the wild.
Experienced drone pilots have to launch the aircraft from small boats zooming through the water and navigate the drone to the exact right place above the whale to gather respiratory drops, which are full of telling information about the animal’s health, according to The Times.
“They’ve said a few times now that this is, technically speaking, the most complex mission they have ever flown,” Dr. Hendrik Nollens, the vice president of wildlife health for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, who was on the expedition, told the outlet of the drone pilots.
The putrid-smelling whale was identified as Tsuchi, a 28-year-old known female in the pod, according to the newspaper, and the drone eventually helped researchers diagnose her with a condition akin to a bloody nose.
But the use of drones is only one method that scientists have used to treat Southern Residents over the past few years. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration worked with non-profits to create new techniques. These included using aerial photography for keeping track of measurements, surveying samples of whale feces stolen from water, and administering antibiotics using a Dart Gun to sick members, The Times reported.
One nonprofit called Wild Orca even employs the use of a service dog who is trained in sniffing out whale feces to locate the animals.
Researchers told The Times that medical interventions alone won’t save the Southern Residents. But the top-tier veterinary treatment on the water may buy the endangered animals some more time.
The article Killer Whale Doctors use drones and dogs to treat orca patients while population numbers are plummeting first appeared on Business Insider .