Number 10: Whale-Feces Researcher
They scoop up whale dung, then dig through it for clues
"Brown stain ahoy!" is not the cry most mariners long to hear, but for Rosalind Rolland, a senior researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston, it´s a siren song. Rolland, along with a few lucky research assistants, combs Nova Scotia´s Bay of Fundy looking for endangered North Atlantic right whales. Actually, she´s not really looking for the whales-just their poo. "It surprised even me how much you can learn about a whale through its feces," says Rolland, who recently published the most complete study of right whales ever conducted. "You can test for pregnancy, measure hormones and biotoxins, examine its genetics. You can even tell individuals apart."
Rolland pioneered whale-feces research in 1999. By 2003, she was frustrated by the small number of samples her poo patrol was collecting by blindly chasing whales on the open ocean. So she began taking along sniffer dogs that can detect whale droppings from as far as a mile away. When they bark, she points her research vessel in the direction of the brown gold, and as the boat approaches the feces-the excrement usually stays afloat for an hour after the deed is done and can be bright orange and oily depending on the type of plankton the whale feeds on-Rolland and her crew begin scooping up as much matter as they can using custom-designed nets. Samples are then placed in plastic jars and packed in ice (the largest chunks are just over a pound) to be shared with other researchers across North America. "We´ve literally been in fields of right-whale poop," she marvels.
In the past few years, other whale researchers have adopted Rolland´s methods. Nick Gales of the Australia Antarctic Division now plies the Southern Ocean looking for endangered blue-whale dung, a pursuit that in 2003 led him to a scientific first. While tailing a minke whale, Gale´s team photographed what is believed to be the first bout of whale flatulence caught on film-a large, disconcertingly pretty bubble trailing behind the whale like an enormous jellyfish. "We stayed away from the bow after taking the picture," Gales recalls. "It does stink."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.