What is in a whale breath?

Calm down.  Not mine, but a whale whale’s breath.

On her trainer’s command, an alabaster-skinned beluga whale named Naku placed her chin on the deck of her outdoor pool and exhaled several times, emitting a hollow “chuff” sound with each breath. The vapor rose into a petri dish a researcher held over her blowhole.

Those tiny drops contain a wealth of information, it turns out. Researchers at Mystic Aquarium and elsewhere are learning how to use the breath, or “blow,” of whales and dolphins to extract and measure hormones, microorganisms, DNA and the byproducts of metabolism.

It’s pretty much a non-invasive blood test.  Would be cool if that could work for us too.

“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.”  

Doctors have long sniffed their patients’ breath to diagnose a variety of diseases. But gadgets may soon replace noses, with chemical breath tests under development for a host of human ailments, including asthma, cancer, diabetes and tuberculosis.

Trainers and veterinarians working with captive whales and dolphins also routinely smell their breath. Normal dolphin breath has a fishy smell; rotten-egg scents signal digestive problems, and sweet ones indicate bacterial pneumonia, according to Sam Ridgway, a veterinarian and neurobiologist at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego. In 1969, Dr. Ridgway published the first basic cetacean-breath study, exploring a dolphin’s diving ability.

Four decades later, advances in chemical sensing, computing and human breath analysis drew Dr. Ridgway’s team and perhaps a half-dozen others back to cetacean breath in earnest. In 2009, researchers reported detecting the hormones progesterone and testosterone in blow from humpback and North Atlantic right whales — potential clues to their sex and reproductive state. The paper, published in the journal Marine Mammal Science, showed that blow analysis might really work.

A few months later, another team using a remote-controlled helicopter to collect blow samples reported finding potentially pathogenic bacteria in the breath of five whale species. The whales watched the helicopter buzz overhead, but otherwise seemed unperturbed, said the lead researcher, Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, a molecular epidemiologist at the Autonomous University of Querétaro in Mexico. “In terms of what we normally do with wildlife — restraint and capture and collecting samples — this is as noninvasive as you can get.”

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