The SnotBot program has been validated. We have collected 171 samples from five species of whale, and our analysis partners at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Oregon State University have successfully detected both DNA and hormones in the samples.
So what comes next? Is the job done?
I think we all know the answer to that. Of course not! Now is the time to take this program to the next level. As we get better and better at collecting snot samples using a drone, we need to work harder and harder: to be more creative and more innovative, to continue improving and evolving our methods.
One aspect of the program we are increasingly focusing on is the analysis end. Ultimately, this is all about the samples. So what exactly do our analysis partners want? How can we help them? To this end, we are having regular discussions with our analysis partners about what they need, about what they want. And the answer we are getting back is simple: they want more snot (larger samples).
We need to find a way to deliver this.
The first way we might go about doing this is to change the way we fly the drone when collecting the sample. For example, where we position the drone above the whale, what direction we approach the whale from, whether we remain static or fly the drone through the cloud of blow, etc. Having collected 171 samples, however, we feel we have our protocol pretty well established.
The remaining option would be to increase the surface area on which we collect the sample, by changing the number and placement of our petri dishes. Of course, the drones we are using were never designed to have a bunch of mad whale scientists stick petri dishes all over them. They are complex machines with many moving parts, including four high-powered propellers. When looking for new places to attach petri dishes, you have to get creative. For this expedition we are trying two new approaches. First, we have switched from round petri dishes to square dishes. This makes for a more efficient use of space. Second, we have 3D-printed additional legs which attach on to the legs of the drone. On to here, we can place additional petri dishes. There was no space left on the drone for more dishes, so we just made more space.
We can then try and ensure that the quality of the samples we collect is as good as possible. So what do we do with the sample once we have it? Of course this is not only a new program for us, but also for our analysis partners. Not only do we have to work out the most effective way of collecting the samples, but also the most effective ways of processing, storing and analysing the samples. We have tried multiple different solutions and protocols, and are engaged in a continuous dialogue with our analysis partners regarding what has and has not worked.
For each different laboratory/analysis, the samples need to be processed, stored, and analysed in different ways. To further complicate things, for the first time we will also be collecting, processing, and storing samples for toxicological analysis with our long-time partners at the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology. The Wise Lab will be trying to detect pollutants, such as heavy metals, in the samples. We do not know if pollutants will be present in the sample, but it could add yet another component to the SnotBot program.
Not all improvements relate to the collection/processing of the actual samples. One of the major advantages of the SnotBot program is its non-invasive nature. We have recorded very few reactions from the whales to the drones, but we have recorded some reactions, and there is always room for improvement. For the first time on this expedition, we have actually tried camouflaging the underside of our drones with blue, grey, and white paint (to look like sky), in the hopes of decreasing the possibility of the whales visually detecting the drones. We really have no idea whether this will work. On one level it does seem logical: a sky coloured drone should be more difficult to detect. But we don’t know enough about the eyesight of whales, nor how a whale might detect the drone — whether it is more based on the movement of the drone rather the colour, and so on. Still, it is very much worth a try! Plus, we think the drones look cooler camouflaged.
And so we will keep working to improve!