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A Whale of a Tale

Posted on April 17, 2017 by in The OFI Blog

James Smithson Fellow Dr. Matthew S. Leslie

From February 11, 2017 to March 5, 2017, Dr. Matthew S. Leslie, a James Smithson Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), spent three weeks in Chilean Patagonia using drones to study blue whales in collaboration with scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Fundación MERI.

The objective of Matt’s ongoing research is to determine if the Chilean blue whales are a unique subspecies – distinct from the existing subspecies of blue whales. To test this hypothesis, Dr. Leslie piloted a custom drone above the free-swimming whales to collect aerial images that he will use to measure their body size and condition, including metrics which will provide insight into their subspecies membership. It is important to determine their subspecies affiliation. If Chilean blue whales are a unique subspecies they may need special protection. In addition to aerial images, the research team including WHOI scientists Drs. Amy Apprill and Carolyn Miller in collaboration with Dr. Michael Moore also collected whale breath samples using the drone.  These samples will be used to study the microbial communities living inside the respiratory tract of the whales. The ultimate goal of this effort is to develop remote health assessment tools for large whales.

Drs. Matthew Leslie (left) and Carolyn Miller (right; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) ready for landing the APH-22 custom drone after a flight collecting aerial photographs to measure blue whales in Chile. Photo by Dani Casado www.danicasado.com

A photograph of a Chilean blue whale taken using a drone-mounted camera. Photo by Matthew Leslie and Carolyn Miller, taken under Chilean permit MERI 1197-Feb-2017 issued to Fundación MERI.