As part of her PhD dissertation, Dr. Laura Thompson, under the direction of Dr. Tracy Romano, Chief Scientist and Vice President of Biological Research at Mystic Aquarium developed a method to collect samples of respiratory vapor, or “blow,” from belugas. Over the past several years, Dr. Thompson has used blow sampling to measure changes in cortisol both in animals at Mystic Aquarium as well as in the field. Today Mystic Aquarium and industry colleagues use breath analysis to determine the presence of important hormones critical in metabolism and physiological adaptations and that aid in assessing health status.
This week Dr. Thompson continued her research at Mystic Aquarium with the goal of uncovering physiological data that may help us better understand the effects of dive behavior not only marine mammals but also humans.
Marine mammals are well adapted to life in an aquatic environment with specialized physiology and behaviors which allow them to make very deep and prolonged dives without suffering from dive related injuries seen in humans. In recent years, however, there has been some evidence that certain circumstances may actually put marine mammals at risk of injury similar to decompression sickness seen in humans.
Decompression sickness, also known as the bends or divers’ disease, is a condition arising from dissolved gases being emitted inside the body as bubbles upon depressurization.
“The immune system plays an important role in the development of symptoms of decompression sickness, particularly inflammation,” said Dr. Thompson. “In humans, activity levels before, during or following a dive may regulate the development of the symptoms; making injury more or less likely. As part of an on-going research effort to better understand the immune system of marine mammals, and how adaptation of immune responses may play a protective role during diving, we are investigating whether or not inflammatory responses can be detected in blow samples of a beluga whale following active or stationary dives.”
The beluga whales at Mystic Aquarium are trained through positive behavioral reinforcement to exhale on signal into a Petri dish.
Kela, a 36 year old female beluga, has been trained to perform an active dive, swimming between trainers positioned around the Arctic Coast exhibit, as well as a stationary dive (submerged and stationed on a target). During Thursday’s session, Kela performed both behaviors for three minutes.
To examine potential changes in inflammatory markers, blow samples were collected by Dr. Thompson and Mystic Aquarium’s professional animal care team before, immediately after, and 1 hour after each dive.
“We hope to demonstrate blow sampling as a non-invasive sampling approach to gain information about the immune system in belugas, and also learn about how activity levels during diving may ultimately relate to avoidance of dive-related injury,” added Dr. Thompson.