Understanding the relationship between health and environmental stressors is important for large whale conservation. However, robust measurements of health are challenging to acquire, and we still lack methodology to non-invasively assess the health of large whales. Here we propose to utilize a small unmanned hexacopter drone to develop non-invasive health indices for humpback whales. We will remotely acquire high resolution vertical images to assess the body condition, from girth (fat) levels and lesion markings and also collect blow samples of the respiratory microbiome, the assemblage of microorganisms residing in the respiratory track, which are the most common source of cetacean disease. We plan to obtain body condition images and respiratory microbiome samples from whales from Stellwagen Bank, a highly industrialized coastal ecosystem that is heavily overfished and is substantially used for maritime activities and the Antarctic Peninsula, which is relatively pristine. Morphometric and respiratory microbiome data sets will be compared and contrasted with known ecosystem status data. This will be the first large-scale respiratory microbiome dataset collected for any species of marine mammal, and the first time a comprehensive respiratory survey is conducted on animals of varying habitats and health conditions. The potential correlation of the respiratory microbiome with health features is of particular importance for threatened and endangered populations, for which rigorous noninvasive health assessment techniques are limited.
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