Collecting baleen whale blow samples by drone: A minimally intrusive tool for conservation genetics
April 15, 2024

Article published April 4 2024

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Authors: Éadin N. O’Mahony, Angela L. Sremba, Eric M. Keen, Nicole Robinson, Archie Dundas, Debbie Steel, Janie Wray, C. Scott Baker, Oscar E. Gaggiotti

Abstract: In coastal British Columbia, Canada, marine megafauna such as humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus velifera) have been subject to a history of exploitation and near extirpation. While their populations have been in recovery, significant threats are posed to these vulnerable species by proposed natural resource ventures in this region, in addition to the compounding effects of anthropogenic climate change. Genetic tools play a vital role in informing conservation efforts, but the associated collection of tissue biopsy samples can be challenging for the investigators and disruptive to the ongoing behaviour of the targeted whales. Here, we evaluate a minimally intrusive approach based on collecting exhaled breath condensate, or respiratory ‘blow’ samples, from baleen whales using an unoccupied aerial system (UAS), within Gitga’at First Nation territory for conservation genetics. Minimal behavioural responses to the sampling technique were observed, with no response detected 87% of the time (of 112 UAS deployments). DNA from whale blow (n = 88 samples) was extracted, and DNA profiles consisting of 10 nuclear microsatellite loci, sex identification and mitochondrial (mt) DNA haplotypes were constructed. An average of 7.5 microsatellite loci per individual were successfully genotyped. The success rates for mtDNA and sex assignment were 80% and 89% respectively. Thus, this minimally intrusive sampling method can be used to describe genetic diversity and generate genetic profiles for individual identification. The results of this research demonstrate the potential of UAS-collected whale blow for conservation genetics from a remote location.

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