Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health (2022-2023)


Hypoxia occurs when tissues are deprived of an adequate oxygen supply. Hypoxia is highly relevant to human disease across multiple clinical settings, including heart attack, stroke, COVID-19, and cancer. While human organs are poorly equipped to handle oxygen deprivation, deep-diving whales have adapted an exquisite tolerance for hypoxia, demonstrated by their ability to dive deep, often for hours, while foraging. 

Studying marine mammals may be the key to developing new ways to protect hypoxia-sensitive species and create new clinical interventions for hypoxia in relation to human health. 

Project Description

Building on the work of previous teams, this project 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.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed manuscripts; live cell lines and organoid models from multiple marine mammal species; international conferences; science communication/outreach; data for grant proposals

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2 graduate students and 6 undergraduate students. Interested students will likely be studying biology, earth and ocean sciences, environmental sciences and policy, marine science and conservation, and/or biomedical engineering and have interests in marine medicine and molecular biology. In addition, students with science communication skills and interests would provide a good fit.

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.

Several boat trips may be possible over the summer but are weather-dependent and not mandatory for students. Trips may take place from the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort or Manteo, NC.

Ashley Blawas will be the project manager for the team.


Summer 2022 – Spring 2023

  • Summer 2022 (optional): Collect offshore data  
  • Fall 2022: Collect data; work in lab
  • Spring 2023: Collect data; work in lab; write, review and submit manuscript 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 (2021-2022).


Image: Humpbacks and pilot whales playing, by montereydiver, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Whales diving.

Team Leaders

  • Ashley Blawas, Nicholas School of the Environment–Ph.D. Student
  • 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

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Natalie Kubicki, Biology (BS)

/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