How do scientists study pollution in marine mammals? How are they able to get samples from animals that spend most of their lives underwater? Get the answer from Dr. Magali Houde, Research Scientist, at Environment and Climate Change Canada.
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KERBENS: Today on ‘Ask a Scientist’ we have a question from nine-year-old Juliette from Montreal, Quebec, about marine mammals and pollution.
JULIETTE: Hi. My name is Juliette, I am nine years old, and I am in grade four. I’d like to know how scientists study pollution in marine mammals and get samples to analyze. Thank you.
KERBENS: Wow! That’s a great question, and we happen to have a scientist here at Environment and Climate Change Canada, Dr. Magali Houde, who researches the effects of pollution on marine mammals, and we have asked her to answer this question for you.
MAGALI HOUDE (Research Scientist, Effects of pollution on aquatic ecosystems):
Thank you, Juliette, for your question.
It is indeed very difficult to study animals that spend a part of their lives, or their entire lives underwater. To study pollution in marine mammals, we need samples of the animal – blood, fat, liver, for example – to measure the contaminants that accumulate in tissues through water or food.
Several strategies can be used depending on the species that you want to study and their habitat. Does the animal come to land or on ice? Does it live in deep or shallow waters?
Some researchers may capture smaller animals such as dolphins when the waters are shallow or seals when they come to rest on land. With the help of nets and with great care, scientific teams can surround the animal, immobilize them for a few moments, observe their health and collect samples such as milk and blood before letting them go.
For larger whales, scientists will use a biopsy method and shoot a small, modified arrow on the animal to collect a small piece of skin and fat. This technique requires a very good communication between the pilot of the boat and the shooter because they need to be very well synchronized.
Another way to access whale tissue is by tracking strandings. Each year, for example, more than a dozen beluga whales are found stranded on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.
Another option to obtain marine mammal samples is by collaborating with Northern Indigenous communities. Inuit, for example, have been hunting whales and seals for thousands of years to dress, to feed, to survive, and by collaborating with groups of hunters across the Arctic, researchers can gain access to very important samples that can help better understand the distribution of these chemicals that are largely produced by humans in the environment.
Ultimately what we want to do is to better understand pollution in order to better prevent it.
I hope this answers your question.
KERBENS: Wow! That is fascinating work that you do, Magali. It certainly takes a lot of teamwork to collect research samples while ensuring the health and safety of the marine mammals.
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