Scientists ‘Breathalyze’ Killer Whales

Unfortunately for biologists, it’s not really possible to get wild killer whales to come in for a checkup. But to test the health of orcas, you can apparently give the creatures a breathalyzer.

That’s what a group of scientists did with an endangered population of orcas, known as southern resident killer whales, in the Salish Sea.

Over the course of a few years, scientists snuck up on surfacing killer whales and held out a long aluminium pole topped with a petri dish. The researchers positioned the dish just above each whale’s blowhole so that it would catch any microbes let out by the whale as it exhaled.

The researchers captured microbes spurting out of the whales’ blowholes. Results showed that the species carries some of the same pathogens that cause disease in humans, including Salmonella and staph bacteria. The whales also carried some fungi, like Phoma, which is usually found in soil.

These animals are long-ranging, and as they migrate along the coast, they are exposed to agricultural runoff and urban discharge, which may introduce a variety of microbes into the water.


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