The Marine Stress and Ocean Health Lab at the New England Aquarium looks like your typical laboratory. It’s full of humming and whirring machines, beakers and test tubes, digital scales and centrifuges.
What sets it apart is the freezer. At negative 80 degrees Celsius, it houses the world’s largest collection of right whale poop.
It sounds gross, but scientists can learn a lot from feces — reproductive and metabolic health, stress levels, exposure to infectious disease and biotoxins. And they can do it without harming or bothering the animals.
“It’s just like if you go to the doctor and get a panel of blood tests. We’re getting that type of information on animals,” says Roz Rolland, senior scientist and director of the Marine Stress and Ocean Health program. She adds that this is especially valuable for right whales, 50-ton animals “that you can’t capture or handle in any way.”
Threatened by a combination of climate change and human activity, there are an estimated 411 North Atlantic right whales left on earth. There were no calves born in the 2017-’18 season; four have been spotted since December 2018. If the status quo continues, the species is expected to be wiped out by 2050. The information Rolland and her team collect could mean the difference between survival and extinction.
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Studying Poop? Who Came Up With This Idea?
The right whale poop program began in the late 1990s during another stretch of abnormally low calving rates. Rolland knew scientists collected feces from primates and other terrestrial animals to study reproductive hormones and figured, why not whales? She joined other scientists on a boat in the Bay of Fundy in 1999 to see if she could even collect right whale fecal samples.
“I just got on board with them with my net and waited until we witnessed a whale pooping,” she says matter-of-factly. Soon enough, she was a pro. After a few trips, she didn’t even need to see defecation; the smell alone could alert her to its presence.
“It’s indescribably potent. It’s sort of oily, greasy,” she says. “You know when you smell it, there’s nothing else that smells like a right whale poop.”
(By the way, right whale poop is reddish-orange in color and floats in clumps, which helps scientists spot it.)
After scooping up a sample, Rolland drains excess water and freezes it in a plastic jar. She’s built her collection over the last two decades and says she has at least 400 samples.
These days, the freezer is jam-packed with icy sample cups containing what looks like frozen tomato paste. She’ll need a second freezer soon.
How Do You Test Whale Poop?
To test for the types and amounts of hormones in a sample, Rolland defrosts a few grams of frozen poop under a fume hood. (When frozen, the smell and hormones are contained. But defrosted, even that little bit could fumigate and contaminate the whole lab.) Next, she dehydrates the sample, sifts it into a powder, weighs it into precise amounts, and mixes with alcohol to form what is essentially a tincture.
From there, Rolland and her colleagues can study reproductive hormones like estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. They’re able to tell if an animal is sexually mature and, if so, whether a female is pregnant or lactating.
Because stress affects the whales’ ability to reproduce, the team studies stress hormones like cortisol to see how the animals respond to specific changes in their environment.
“They’re being entangled in fishing gear, they’re being hit by ships, there’s a lot of underwater noise,” Rolland says. “We’re now talking about seismic exploration off the coast; there’s going to be development of wind farms. All of this activity in our coastal ecosystem is affecting their habitats.”
In 2012, Rolland’s team published a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society linking underwater noise from ships to a stress response in the whales.
If scientists know what’s harming the whales, Rolland hopes lawmakers and industry representatives can create protective policies.
What Else Have They Learned?
Recently, the team has focused on thyroid health. Thyroid hormones contribute to metabolic rate, and changes can indicate malnourishment. Data from the last few years suggests that the whales aren’t getting enough food, which Rolland says could help explain why the animals look thin and why they’ve been showing up in odd places.
“What we’ve seen since 2010 is right whales have changed their migration patterns,” she says. “We think they’re looking harder for food and having to go farther north because the Gulf of Maine is warming so quickly.”
This creates two problems. First, energy spent searching for food is energy not spent on reproduction. And second, as the whales move into new waters, they’re increasingly coming into contact with boats and fishing gear.
“As a researcher and a veterinarian, the last thing I want to do is add another source of stress to their lives,” Rolland says. “The fact that we’re able to learn so much about these animals — 50- or 60-ton animals — without even touching them is a fantastic step forward in our ability to understand what’s compromising and affecting them.”
Do They Study Feces From Other Marine Animals?
You bet! While the team develops additional noninvasive study techniques — studying blow and baleen, for example — the New England Aquarium is also expanding the fecal study program to other whales and marine species.
Rolland’s colleague Katie Graham is in charge of the Northern fur seal poop program. The New England Aquarium houses three northern fur seals — Luna, Chiidax and Kitovi — so Graham is able to collect many more samples than if she were relying on wild fur seals. The Mystic Aquarium and Seattle Aquarium also contribute fecal samples from their fur seals.
If you’re wondering how Graham tells the samples apart, the answer is that each seal is fed a unique “fecal marker” like sesame seeds or flax seeds. Those markers show up in the feces. (Fun fact: The seal trainers who collect the feces call it a “full harvest” when they get a sample from all three seals in one day.)
“What we’re trying to do is build a library of hormones so we can learn about their reproduction,” Graham says. Though not technically endangered, wild northern fur seals are considered “vulnerable” and their population is declining.
The fur seal poop program is still in its infancy, but Graham says they’re collecting samples regularly and plan to track seasonal reproductive changes and develop a pregnancy test in next few years. Long-term, she hopes this work will help wild fur seals.
Correction: An earlier version of this story used outdated information about right whale calves. There have been four spotted since December 2018. We regret the error.