At a perilous time for North Atlantic right whales, their poop is coveted

In most professions, the discovery of feces on the job would be rather upsetting. But, to North Atlantic right whale researchers, it's a gift. 

It's bright orange floating bits of gold for scientists at the Anderson Cabot Center of Ocean Life.

"We refer to poop as a treasure around here," said Katie Graham, an assistant scientist at the research centre in the New England Aquarium.

North Atlantic right whale poop is coveted because it carries vital information on the health of the few remaining members of the endangered species. There are about 400 left in the world and fewer than 100 female adults. 

It's also rare for researchers to get their hands on a sample. The centre receives about five or six samples a year.

"It's really a gold mine of information,'" Graham said. "We're focused here primarily on hormone analysis, but you can learn about toxins, disease, all sorts of different measures through fecal samples."

Scooping poop for two decades has allowed them to identify hormone signals that reveal key health markers for the whales, including stress, reproductive activity and pregnancy — data that helps better understand a species in peril. It can also shape protective measures.

Meg Carr/New England Aquarium

The centre has made recommendations to protect the whales, including shifting shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy to reduce the likelihood of ship strikes. 

Measuring stress hormones offers researchers insight into what's happening to the whales, such as entanglements — something 85 per cent of the whales have encountered at least once, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We know this causes a huge increase in stress hormones, and it can also impact their body condition, which means if an animal is not in good health, it's not going to be reproducing," Graham said.

"Stress hormones are a really valuable way for us to assess threats to these animals and then also develop policies and mitigation measures to help protect those animals."

Hormone analysis was used last month to determine that Harmonia, a female right whale, was pregnant after photographs taken in the summer showed a suspected baby bump.

It's a tenuous period for the whales — to put it mildly — and each successful pregnancy offers hope the species can rebound, especially at a time when calving intervals have extended and fewer calves are being born.

A personal investment

After testing Harmonia's sample and finding elevated levels of reproductive hormones, which suggested she was pregnant, Graham ran downstairs to share the exciting news with her colleagues and a celebration broke out in the lab.

The jubilation isn't solely about unlocking the secrets of a rare fecal sample; the researchers have developed a personal attachment to these animals.

Meg Carr/New England Aquarium

Philip Hamilton, a research scientist at Anderson Cabot, has studied the highs and lows for the species over the past 35 years.

"It's not just numbers and data," he said. "These are individuals that many of whom, like Harmonia, I've seen since she was just a few days old and I've been watching them throughout their entire lives.

"It's an intimate study. It's not huge numbers, but you actually know pretty much all the individuals in the population."

It's been a positive start to 2020, for the most part. Four mother-and-calf pairs have been spotted off the southeastern U.S. coast, although one days-old calf has been injured by a propeller. 

There were seven newborns in the 2019 calving season and none in 2018. Hamilton said 12 North Atlantic right whales died last year.

"After we've had three years now of particularly low calving, what we would really need and expect at this point is to have 20 or 30 calves born, that's the number of reproductive females that could be giving birth, and we kind of need to give birth to offset all the mortalities," Hamilton said.

Baleen, blubber and blow

He said fecal samples are collected "opportunistically" these days, if a field team comes across a bit of "treasure." 

The idea, he said, first came following a period of low reproduction in the late 1990s, and they wanted to determine whether the whales were losing the fetus or not getting pregnant for other reasons. 

"The only way to distinguish between those two mechanisms of reproductive failure were to find out if in fact they were pregnant," he said. "So that was the the primary impetus for collecting more poop samples and developing other techniques."

Poop-sniffing dogs, trained to track down the leavings of certain endangered or threatened species, were deployed to find that bright orange scat.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium/NOAA Permit #20556-01

Scientists at the New England Aquarium, led by Dr. Rosalind Rolland, have since developed a number of other options to examine hormone signatures, including:

  • baleen, the hundreds of plates some whales have instead of a teeth carry a wealth of information that can paint an image of the animal's life.
  • blow, a non-invasive method where respiratory vapour is captured using a long carbon-fibre rod attached to a vessel. 

"Taking a large blood sample from a whale is essentially impossible, so any other way we can learn about these animals is really important for helping to protect them and also learn about their basic biology," Graham said.

"The animals are so cryptic we sometimes don't know basic facts about their biology, so all this information helps us gain new insights into them."