#22 Biopsy Sampling

I recently had the opportunity to assist a boat-based team of researchers from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (Georgia DNR) with biopsy sampling of a right whale calf. Biopsy darting is performed in the Southeastern U.S. each year as a collaborative effort between researchers in the U.S. and Canada.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Karen Vale

Obtaining a biopsy sample (i.e., a sample of skin and blubber) provides genetic information, which can help scientists determine characteristics and relationships such as reproductive success, sex ratio, genetic diversity (loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental, particularly for a critically endangered population with so few individuals), identity of individuals and genetic relationships (e.g., paternity and maternity), etc. Much of my day was spent anxiously waiting on a 20 ft. inflatable boat named the R/V Hurricane (see photo) for the aerial survey team to locate cow/calf pairs.

Late into the day, we finally got the call from Kelly and Suzie in the plane - they located whale #1701 (Aphrodite) and her calf. We quickly headed toward the coordinates provided by the aerial team. Once on scene, the boat was carefully maneuvered into position to obtain photographs and a biopsy sample. Clay George, a researcher with Georgia DNR, readied a crossbow equipped with a modified arrow. Instead of the typical sharp tipped arrow, our arrow is modified with a hollow cylinder tip which allows for collection of a small piece of skin and blubber. The biopsy darting trip was a success and the genetic information of Aphrodite's calf will soon be added to the genetic databank. [read more about biopsy darting with this post from the Bay of Fundy blog.]




  1. #22 Biopsy Sampling. Does this, in any way, pose a health threat to the Whales? I'm just curious.

  2. Hi Virginia. That's a great question. There has never been any detectable health problem caused by biopsying. Researchers have looked at reproduction and survival of whales that have been biopsied compared to those that have not and found no difference between the two groups. Still, there is always the slight potential for it to cause harm and we therefore take pains to only sample whales for which a sample is needed.

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