The humpback microbiome

Amy Apprill of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution studies the tiny microbial hitchhikers that tag along as the humpback whale makes its way across the globe.

Whale-watching professionals

The best way to find a humpback whale is to look for one. Tags don't stay on them for long so observing them from space is out. You can listen for them underwater but that only works if you don't have a lot of engine noise from your boat. Sonar and radar only see what’s under the boat, which means they are only useful if you are right on top of the whales. But whales have to come up for air and that’s when they get spotted. Blowing whales will create a surface disturbance along the horizon and if they are feeding you might see a gathering of birds or other motion at the top of the water. Spotting whales is not total blind luck for researchers, though historical knowledge of past whale behavior can increase the odds substantially.

Microbes as biosensors

Microbial populations can change quickly in response to alterations in environmental conditions. If a whale is sick, it may take a really long time for researchers to be able to tell by just looking at the animal. But the microbes are using nutrients from the whale so if there’s a change in the metabolism of the whale, the microbes will start to change as well.


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