Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health (2020-2021)


In the past decade, oxygen levels in the oceans have declined substantially. This trend is predicted to worsen as global ocean temperatures rise. Known as hypoxia, this low-oxygen condition has led to reductions in the health of marine ecosystems and increased stress on sensitive species. In addition to the environmental effects of hypoxia, lack of tissue oxygen is critically important in multiple human clinical settings, including heart attack, stroke, surgery and cancer.

Deep-diving whales have adapted an exquisite tolerance for hypoxia, as they often hold their breath for hours while foraging. Marine mammals may hold the answer to developing new ways to protect hypoxia-sensitive species and creating new clinical interventions for hypoxia as it relates to human health.

Project Description

This project will bridge the gap between marine mammal biology and medical advances in the study of hypoxia on living tissues. The project team will collect tissue samples from three species of cetacean and conduct boat surveys in both shallow and deep waters. Offshore surveys will involve day-long vessel trips to the study site off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The team will use remote biopsy tissue sampling methods to collect small skin and blubber samples from multiple individuals from each species.

Data on diving behavior, group sizes and social behavior will also be collected using visual observations to provide behavioral context for the collected samples. Inshore surveys will concentrate on coastal bottlenose dolphin populations located in the waters around Beaufort, North Carolina. Day-long vessel surveys will depart from the Duke Marine Lab and survey the coastal and estuarine waters of eastern North Carolina.

The team will use a standardized pipeline to create primary and immortalized cell cultures from skin biopsies across multiple species. Team members will use this pipeline to create cell lines from the biopsies collected and compare responses across these species when cultured under normoxic and hypoxic conditions.

To investigate adaptations of marine mammals to hypoxia, the team will employ RAD-sequencing methods to develop a panel of nuclear markers for bottlenose dolphins from inshore and offshore populations. Using these markers, team members will assess genetic variability, estimate an effective population size and determine relatedness for the animals sampled.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed manuscripts; preliminary data for external funding


Spring 2020 – Spring 2021

  • Spring 2020 (optional): Field research with inshore and offshore data collection
  • Summer 2020 (optional): Data collection and lab work
  • Fall 2020: Final field data collection; lab work
  • Spring 2021: Manuscript preparation and submission

See related team, Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health (2021-2022).


Image: Sperm whale diving, by Bernard Spragg NZ, public domain

Whale tail.

Team Leaders

  • Nicola Quick, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Thomas Schultz, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Jason Somarelli, School of Medicine-Medicine: Medical Oncology
  • Jillian Wisse, Nicholas School of the Environment–Marine Science and Conservation–Ph.D. Student

/graduate Team Members

  • Nikki Shintaku, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Samantha Townsend, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Jillian Wisse, Ecology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Ashley Blawas, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Elizabeth Bock
  • Raksha Doddabele, Biology (BS)
  • Chuwen Wang
  • Larry Zheng

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Meagan Dunphy-Daly, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Andrew Read, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Andreas Fahlman, Fundacion Oceanografic