By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
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Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Did you know that some snakes can fly?
The south Asian paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) can launch itself into the air and glide from one tree branch to another. And when it does, it moves its body in waves in something known as aerial undulation. Scientists have long known how the snakes moved. But they didn't know why. Until now.
The Cube is home to a 23-camera motion capture system. Jake Socha
The snakes wore 11 to 17 infrared-reflective markers, which gave the team high-resolution data while still allowing the animals to move freely. Jake Socha
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
More than 350 elephants have died in Botswana since May, and no one knows why.
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Located just off the southeastern coast of Africa, Madagascar is a remote island nation and home to one of the most biodiverse pockets in the world, among them the elusive diamond frog. Even in the most well-studied areas, new species are constantly being discovered.
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Hummingbirds live a more colorful existence than humans do, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday confirmed.
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By Peter Yeung
A pair of pink Amazon river dolphins emerges for just a moment, arcing above the chocolate brown waters inside the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development, a research facility at the tropical heart of the Brazilian Amazon. Powerful jets of water spray out of their blowholes as these freshwater mammals take in air before submerging.
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By Euan Ritchie, Amy Coetsee, Anthony Rendall, Tim Doherty and Vivianna Miritis
Long-nosed potoroos are a bit like mini kangaroos, but spend much of their time digging for fungi. Zoos Victoria
French Island's thick vegetation provides potoroos with critical refuge to evade feral cats. Vivianna Miritis
Temporal activity of cats and long-nosed potoroos for winter and summer, on French Island, Victoria. Their overlap is represented by the area shaded in grey. Modified from Miritis et al. (2020).
Camera traps can tell us a lot about how introduced predators and native wildlife interact. Zoos Victoria and Deakin University
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New EU Biodiversity Strategy Can Reduce Risk of Future Pandemics — If It Fully Addresses Wildlife Trade
By Arnaud Goessens
As the planet faces the multiple impacts of COVID-19 on human health, well-being and economies, it's time for governments across the globe to show leadership and take the necessary steps to help prevent future major pandemics.
Trade, Biodiversity and Diseases<p>The strategy, as published, does a great job acknowledging that efforts to address wildlife trade and consumption will help prevent and build up resilience to possible future diseases and pandemics.</p><p>But it doesn't go far enough. The EU must also assist the global community in ending the commercial trade and sale in markets of wildlife for human consumption — particularly birds and mammals — as a key outcome to prevent future zoonotic outbreaks.</p><p>Although much of the wildlife sold in these markets is legal, the illegal trade in wild animals continues to harm both wildlife and local communities. It can also produce the conditions for disastrous and deadly pandemics. The <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/environment/cites/trafficking_en.htm" target="_blank">EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking</a> — first published in 2016 and due to expire this year — will therefore be a critical instrument for reducing that threat. The Biodiversity Strategy calls for the revision of the wildlife trafficking plan in 2021.</p>
Southern white rhino, a frequently trafficked species, in Uganda. Rod Waddington / CC BY-SA 2.0<p>This commitment is welcome and will provide an opportunity for the EU and its Member States to step up their efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and finally treat it as serious crime. Hopefully it will include a commitment to deploying a similar level of resources and penalties as currently devoted to crimes like drug trafficking. Without such deterrents in place, the EU — like any government or region — won't be able to put an end to wildlife trafficking.</p><p>The EU is also now determining its long-term budget — the Multiannual Financial Framework — and will soon set spending targets for the next seven years. The MFF and the next EU development-aid budget (the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument) are critical in outlining the EU's top priorities.</p><p>Those priorities must include high, ambitious spending targets for climate, environment and biodiversity. Without proper financing mechanisms, the EU won't be able to implement <em>any</em> strategies or actions to preserve our environment and health. While the Biodiversity Strategy states that the EU's ready to increase its support to developing countries for biodiversity after this year, no detailed financial pledge has yet been made. The EU has missed an opportunity to make a much-needed commitment in this regard, but it's not too late to establish one.</p><p>The EU has all the cards in its hands to make the right decisions — not only to significantly reduce the risk of future major pandemics but to build a new paradigm in which we can live in harmony with nature. It published a well-thought-out strategy that provides the foundation for ambitious actions to tackle the biodiversity crisis; now it needs to put its money where its mouth is.</p><p>The EU and its member states have established bold and immediate measures to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on human health, wellbeing and security. Now it must do the same to tackle the biodiversity crisis — whose impacts on our society are likely to be far worse than those of the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p>The EU has a unique opportunity to show leadership, to be a game-changer, and to be on the right side of history a model that other governments and regions across the globe can emulate. Let's hope it doesn't let us down.</p>