URI undergrads play key role in beluga whale research

Students conducted research at Mystic Aquarium


KINGSTON, R.I. – May 24, 2016 – Eleven University of Rhode Island undergraduate students in a variety of disciplines played key roles in a recently completed study to identify a non-invasive method of determining the reproductive status of beluga whales. The students collected samples of beluga “breath” from animals at Mystic Aquarium, isolated their DNA, conducted behavioral observations, assisted with ultrasounds of the whales, and much more.

“The students were involved in all aspects of the project,” said Justin Richard, a URI doctoral candidate from North Stonington, Conn., who led the study. “The project wouldn’t have happened without their help.”

A former marine mammal trainer at the aquarium, Richard jokes that his research is all about whale snot.

“The idea is to develop non-invasive methodologies for learning about belugas,” he said. “The current standard practice for collecting this information is to fire a biopsy dart into the animal. But we may be able to learn most of what we want to know simply by catching their exhale.”

Richard’s objective was to correlate the whales’ reproductive physiology with observed changes in their behavior, something that cannot be determined by observing the animals in their ice-covered Arctic habitat. But to accomplish this, he needed help. And plenty of students volunteered to participate during the four-year project.

Krystle Schultz of Westfield, Mass., for instance, who graduated last May with degrees in marine biology and animal science, helped develop a way to determine a beluga’s maternal lineage based on mitochondrial DNA isolated from its breath. She also succeeded in isolating RNA transcripts from beluga breath, something that no one had done before for any whale, dolphin or porpoise species. And under Richards’ guidance, she was awarded two grants from URI to help her carry out her role in the project.

“My favorite part of the experience – besides collecting the beluga snot samples, of course – was presenting my research at the Greater Atlantic Regional Stranding Conference,” said Schultz, who is now studying to become a veterinarian at Tufts University. “I also learned a lot about writing grant proposals, conducting independent research, and how to construct a professional research poster.”

Dan Catizone joined the project during his junior year after hearing about it in the marine mammal class Richard teaches. He thought it would be an opportunity to expand his knowledge in a fun way.

“My job was to film the beluga whales and then go through the video and record which whales were interacting with each other and for how long,” said Catizone, a native of Ocean Township, N.J., who graduated in 2015 and now conducts sea turtle research for the U.S. Geological Survey. “It was great to spend time at the aquarium observing these magnificent animals.”

Rachael Desfosses, a May 2015 graduate from Bedford, N.H., who majored in marine biology and animal science, was also on the video team, which led to an internship at the aquarium. She hopes to become a marine mammal trainer, and she figured that working with the beluga whales would be an excellent first step.

“I gained a lot of insight into beluga whale behavior, and it reinforced that I really do want to become a trainer,” said Desfosses, who continues to volunteer at the aquarium. “Being able to learn from the animals was really cool, and after watching hours upon hours of beluga whale behavior and interactions, I learned a lot about them individually. But I also learned that I enjoyed research, and discovering the outcome of what this behavioral data showed us was incredible.”

Other undergraduate students who worked on the project were Noel Vezzi, Renee Bakker, Crysania Brady, Kayla Pelletier, Anthony Cammorano, Kathleen Leach, Bryanne Fontaine and Hanna Kaplan. All agree that the experience provided by the unique research opportunity were highpoints in their URI academic careers.

“I strongly believe that participating in Justin’s research strengthened my application for veterinary school,” said Schultz. “Even though I’m not seeking a career in research or exotic medicine, this experience was invaluable, and I would encourage current and future science majors to get involved in this kind of research.”

Pictured above: URI student Krystle Schultz collects a breath sample from a beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium as part of a research study to learn about the whale’s reproductive status. (Photo by Justin Richard.)