Snotbots can help save the environment: New technology allows us to look at whales to examine ocean pollution increases

Taylor Ploeger, Managing Editor

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      “Every second breath we take comes from the ocean. Today, our oceans and marine life face greater dangers than ever before. To protect them, we need to understand what’s threatening their ecosystem,” these are the opening words on the Parley Snotbot Expedition’s website.

       Cyrill Gutsch, Dr. Iain Kerr and Ted Willke head the Snotbot project.

     The Snotbot expedition uses drones and Artificial Intelligence (AI) software, provided by Intel, to study whales and collect mucus from their blows, the exhaled air from the blowhole. They are beginning this research with whales that migrate to the Southeast coastal region of Alaska.

     The team hopes to use the data gathered to both better monitor whales and their health and judge the overall health of the oceans.

      The AI software allows the researchers to identify the whales in real time and gives them data on the whales’ body shape and composition. By analyzing the mucus, the scientists can also see how healthy the whales are and how pollution and human activity have affected them.

      By understanding how these animals are affected by the state of the oceans, researchers can apply that knowledge and judge the health of the ocean to determine how humans can help.

      The oceans, as most grade school students know, are vital to Earth’s ecosystem. The ocean makes up more than 70 percent of the planet and hold about 97 percent of its water. The ocean is the most important part of the water cycle and the marine plants found in its depths provide most of the planet’s oxygen.

      The importance of a healthy ocean has been diminished though as human over-consumption activities have been prioritized. Over fishing, chemical dumping, noise pollution, agricultural run-off, oceanic acidification and bottom trawling, an industrial method of fishing where a gigantic and heavy nets are dragged across the ocean floor are just some of the destructive methods humans have used that have doomed the most important resource on the planet.

      “2048 seems to be the overall accepted deadline for the collapse of all commercial fisheries, already by 2025 all the coral reef ecosystems in the world will be gone. Leading environmentalists see the end of most sea life happening within the next 6–16 years,” states the Parley for the Oceans website.

      The greatest threats to the ocean are global warming and the diminishment of biodiversity. Humans can be blamed for both.

       The Snotbot expedition hopes the data they find will help improve ocean life and bring to light the serious issues that face the mysterious depths.
“The health of whales could be a litmus test for the health of the oceans themselves, revealing how we’re faring with extracting resources, pollutants and acoustic noise,” says Fred Sharpe, a biologist with the Alaska Whale Foundation and Parley Snotbot team member.

      Whales are among largest mammals on earth. The behemoths have been shrouded in mystery as they are difficult to find and test without capturing or killing them. Whales swim through all the various seas and oceans and migrate thousands of miles in search of food and company.

     The beautiful creatures are incredibly intelligent and possibly even compassionate. While it’s hard to ascribe that word to animals other than humans and their close relatives, some researchers believe that humpback whales are capable of compassion. Humpbacks have been known to race to the rescue when other species are in danger from attacking predators.

      “Humpbacks, it turns out, deliberately interfere with attacking killer whales to help others in distress. They don’t just defend their own babies or close relatives. They intervene on behalf of other species—a gray whale calf with its mother, a seal hauled out on an ice floe, even an
ocean sunfish. Humpbacks act to improve the welfare of others; the classic definition of altruism,” writes Elin Kelsey.

      Whales are so intelligent they are able to learn things as an individual and then teach that knowledge to other whales including their offspring. This was a task that was previously believed to be an exclusively human trait.

      Along with teaching knowledge, whales can communicate with each other to cooperate in tasks. Humpback whales will use a bubble net to catch fish. To create the bubble net a group of whales will circle under a school of fish while releasing air bubbles from their blowholes. As They rise up in the water the fish become trapped by the bubbles, leaving them prone to the humpbacks who quickly begin feeding.

     The whales in the group all have different jobs that are all necessary for making the bubble net possible. This cooperative method of hunting is one of the ways whales have shown off their brain power.

      It’s hard to imagine that these magnificent, intelligent, compassionate animals may soon be nonexistent on Earth due to the hardships that the oceans are facing and illegal whaling activity but the fact of the matter is they are highly endangered.

      “The North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales are among the most endangered of all whales. Only around 400-500 individuals currently exist with fewer than 100 North Pacific right whales remaining. The Western Pacific gray whale may be down to the last 150 individuals but perhaps the most endangered whale lives in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, a genetically distinct population of Bryde’s whales has recently been discovered that may have fewer than 50 individuals remaining,” states whales.org.

     Now that whales are a method for determining the health of the oceans they have become even more important to save.

     The efforts put forth by Parley for the Oceans will hopefully remind the public of the necessity of a healthy ocean and marine life.

     If mankind does not attempt to fix their over-consumption habits whales will become extinct along with a plethora of other ocean life, compromising the most abundant resource available on planet Earth.

Taylor is a senior Mass Communications major. She is an International Peer Mentor and a Managing Editor at The Voice