Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health (2021-2022)


Hypoxia occurs when tissues are deprived of an adequate oxygen supply and is critically important in multiple human clinical settings, including heart attack, stroke, surgery and cancer. In the animal kingdom, deep-diving whales appear to have adapted an exquisite tolerance for hypoxia, demonstrated by their ability to dive at depth, often 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. Preliminary results have pinpointed a series of gene expression pathways associated with hypoxia tolerance in marine mammals and also highlighted genetic variation in two ecotypes (inshore and offshore) bottlenose dolphins that occupy distinct habitats and engage in different diving behavior. Inshore bottlenose dolphin populations live in estuaries and exhibit shallow diving behaviors, while populations of offshore bottlenose dolphins live in the open ocean, off the continental shelf, and dive much deeper to forage. 

The 2019-2020 team collected samples from five marine mammal species, grew primary fibroblast cultures and characterized their responses to hypoxia using RNA sequencing. These analyses led team members to identify several key pathways that regulate hypoxia uniquely in marine mammals as compared to humans, such as the IL-6/inflammation pathway and glucocorticoid signaling.

Project Description

This project team will build on the work of the 2020-2021 team and seek to further investigate the relationship between marine mammal conservation and medical advances in the study of hypoxia on living tissues. 

The team will use tissue biopsies from three species of wild free-ranging cetaceans that exhibit different diving patterns, in order to conduct hypothesis-driven experiments on molecular analysis of hypoxia pathways. The team will also compare genetics of inshore and offshore bottlenose dolphins and explore how they relate to differences in diving behavior and adaptations to hypoxia.

Team members will collect biopsies using boat surveys offshore of Cape Hatteras to sample deep-diving pilot whales, beaked whales and offshore bottlenose dolphins; and inshore to sample shallow-diving coastal bottlenose dolphins. Data on diving behavior, group size and social behavior will provide context for the samples. 

Work with coastal and offshore bottlenose dolphins is focused on identifying genetic variants associated with deep and shallow diving. Team members will perform whole genomere-sequencing on DNA samples from genome scans of 79 offshore and 45 inshore dolphins. This will be used to identify causal genetic variants within specific genes. These approaches will provide a powerful dataset for understanding the genetic architecture underlying hypoxia tolerance in cetaceans.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Published peer-reviewed manuscripts; data for proposals for extramural funding

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 3 graduate students and 6 undergraduate students. Graduate students from the Nicholas School of the Environment are encouraged to apply. Interested undergraduate students will likely be from the natural sciences, including earth and ocean sciences, environmental sciences and policy, marine science and conservation, marine medicine and molecular biology.

Students will gain first-hand research experience through developing questions, data collection, analysis and dissemination of results. They will gain field experience in ethical and safe ways to collect samples from wild marine mammals, principles of recording animal behavior and molecular biology skills in a research laboratory. 

Students will conduct writing and analysis exercises that will contribute to a publication with their authorship and will present their data at regular lab meetings and discussion sessions. Career development discussions with team leaders will help students develop future goals. Graduate students will build leadership and management skills.

Tasks will be divided by the main themes of the project, with each subteam’s lab work mentored by the faculty members. A central Sakai site will house weekly updates and be a hub for resources. Asynchronous lectures, journal articles and seminars will be shared to facilitate learning and promote discussion and all team leaders will facilitate ad-hoc meetings and check-ins to provide support and guidance. Collaboration will be facilitated via student-led presentations, including leading journal clubs and presenting each other's findings and progress to the group to ensure effective dissemination of information and to cement team relationships.

For the optional Summer 2021 component, field work will consist of clusters of 2-3 days, totaling 2 or 3 separate occasions for a maximum of 3-9 days total.

Student travel opportunities (to the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC, or to Manteo, NC for fieldwork) are to be determined. 

Jillian Wisse will be the team’s project manager.


Summer 2021 – Spring 2022

  • Summer 2021 (optional): Offshore data collection
  • Fall 2021: Data collection; lab work
  • Spring 2022: Data collection; lab work; write, review and submit for publication


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health (2020-2021).


Image: Whale, by Cyrille Humbert, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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

  • Ashley Blawas, Marine Sci & Conservation-PHD

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Andrew Read, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Zachary Swaim, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Dolphin Quest
  • Andreas Fahlman, Fundacion Oceanografic