Published January 23. 2013 4:00AM Updated January 23. 2013 11:34PM
Mystic - While the human equivalent is best trapped in a tissue and discarded, perhaps acknowledged with a "gesundheit" for good measure, the stuff expelled from Juno's nasal passages is a precious commodity - at least to Justin Richard.
"He's one of my star mucus providers," Richard, a 31-year-old North Stonington resident and University of Rhode Island doctoral student, said of Juno, a 10-year-old, 1,600-pound male beluga whale.
On Monday, Richard was at the Mystic Aquarium for one of his weekly visits to collect the spray from the blowholes of Juno and his three companions in the beluga exhibit. Richard, who is working on a doctorate in integrative and evolutionary biology, last summer began capturing what he calls the "exhale" in finger-length tubes as part of his research into whether it can be used to assess whale health.
"It's actually very easy, and the whole collection process probably takes 20 seconds or less," he said, as he walked toward the beluga pool to meet with Juno and trainer Kathryn Kahover. "It allows you to get a lot of information without doing any harm to the animal."
Crouched at the edge of the pool, Kahover leaned over to toss capelin herring and squid into Juno's open mouth for one of the belugas' four daily feedings. Then, as Richard squatted next to her, Kahover signaled for Juno to rest his head on the edge of the pool. Richard positioned the tube a couple of inches over the blowhole, and when Kohover tapped the whale's head, Juno blew. After four blows, Richard capped his tube and headed to the aquarium's research lab.
At the lab, Richard weighed the sample at about one-tenth of a gram, then added a water-based solution.
"It helps get the mucus off the sides of the tube," Richard explained.
After that, he would mix the sample in a centrifuge and freeze it, then later take it to labs at URI for analysis. Thus far, he's shown that a whale's sex and its population genetics can be determined from the "exhale."
"The next component will be (reproductive) hormone analysis," he said.
Once the analysis of the "exhale" is complete, he'll compare the results with blood sample analysis from the same whales, to determine how the mucus is reflecting overall whale health.
"So we'll know what the exhale means," Richard explained.
Richard, whose work and URI studies are supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program grant of $30,000 per year for three years, isn't the only researcher capturing what comes from the nasal passages of the aquarium's belugas. Laura Thompson, a University of Connecticut marine sciences doctoral student, said she's analyzing samples for stress hormones. The methods most commonly used, she said, rely on blood samples, but taking a whale's blood "in itself causes a rise in stress," so results can be skewed.
Richard, who began volunteering at the aquarium when he was 18 years old and a freshman at Connecticut College, worked there as a beluga trainer for eight years before starting his doctoral quest. It took him about a week to train the aquarium's belugas to blow on command, he said. But ultimately, he's hoping the techniques he develops won't just be useful for captive whales, but can be adapted for use in the wild.
One of the first places he hopes the research can be applied, he said, is at Cook Inlet in southern Alaska, where an isolated subspecies of belugas is declining for unknown reasons.
"They've stopped hunting them, and the environmental conditions there appear to be favorable" for the population of Cook Inlet belugas, now numbering about 300, to grow, Richard said. Researchers, he added, "know the reference numbers and the rate the population should be increasing."
Since belugas periodically strand themselves, Richard said, he's hoping that his methods can be applied to capture "blow" when the whales are on the beaches and can be kept temporarily restrained from swimming away for the short time it takes to do the collection.
"The blow sampling technique could be a good way to sample many individual whales in a short amount of time," he said. "This is a neat venture between URI and the aquarium."