This week we have a MS (but soon to be PhD) student from the department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Charles Nye, joining us to discuss their work examining the dietary and environmental DNA of whales. So that begs the question – how exactly does an environment, or a diet, have DNA? Essentially, the DNA of many organisms can be isolated from samples of ocean water near the whales, or in the case of dietary DNA, can be taken from the whales’ fecal matter – that’s right, there’s a lot more you can get from poop than just an unpleasant smell.
Why should we care about what whales eat?
As the climate changes, so too does the composition of creatures and plants in the oceans. Examining environmental DNA gives Charles information on the nearby ecological community – which in turn gives information about what is available for the whale to eat plus what other creatures they may be in resource competition with. He is working to identify the various environmental DNA present to assist with conservation efforts for the right whale near Cape Cod – a whale that they hold as dear to their hearts on the East Coast as the folks of Depoe Bay hold the grey whale to theirs.
By digging into the whale poop to extract dietary DNA, Charles can look into how the whales’ diets shift over seasonal and yearly intervals – and he is doing precisely that with the West Coast grey whales. These dietary shifts may be important for conservation purposes, and may also be applied to studying behavior. For example, by looking at whether or not there are sex differences in diet and asking the ever-important question: do whales also experience bizarre pregnancy cravings?
How does someone even get to study whales?
Like many careers, it starts with an identity crisis. Charles originally thought they’d go into scientific illustration, but quickly realized that they didn’t want to turn a hobby he enjoyed into a job with deadlines and dread. A fortunate conversation with his ecology professor during undergrad inspired him to join a research lab studying intertidal species’ genetics – and eventually become a technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
After a while, simply doing the experiments was not enough and they wanted to be able to ask his own questions like “does all the algae found in a gray whale’s stomach indicate they may actually be omnivores, unlike their carnivorous whale peers?” (mmm, shrimp).
Turns out, in order to study whales all you have to do is start small – tiny turban snail small.
Excited for more whale tales? Us too. Be sure to listen live on Sunday, February 5th at 7PM on 88.7FM, or download the podcast if you missed it. Want to stay up to date with the world of whales and art? Follow Charles @thepaintpaddock on Twitter/Instagram for his art or @cnyescienceguy on Twitter for his marine biology musings.