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. 

Building on the work of previous teams, this project team used tissue biopsies from wild free-ranging cetaceans that exhibit different diving patterns, to conduct experiments on molecular analysis of hypoxia pathways. 

Team members collected biopsies using boat surveys offshore of Cape Hatteras to sample deep-diving pilot whales, beaked whales and offshore bottlenose dolphins. Data on diving behavior, group size and social behavior provided context for the samples. The team mapped the genetics of different dolphin populations and used multi-level cellular analyses to better understand how cetaceans’ genetics contribute to their hypoxia tolerance.


Summer 2022 – Spring 2023

Team Outputs

The Cellular Secrets to Whales’ Deepest Dives (2023 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase)

Learning From Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health (Interactive Display presented at 2023 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 19, 2023)

Andrew Read, Jason Somarelli. Defining the Molecular Physiologic Impacts of Stress on Beaked Whale Hypoxia Tolerance: Implications for Behavioral Response (grant awarded from the Office of Naval Research, 2022)

Team website

This Team in the News

Diving into Whales' Ability to Tolerate Low Oxygen

Meet the Winners of the 2023 Bass Connections Student Research Awards

Meet Some of the Teams at the Bass Connections Showcase

See related teams, Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health (2023-2024) and 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

/graduate Team Members

  • Greg Merrill, Ecology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Noelle Fuchs, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Natalie Kubicki, Biology (BS)
  • Ava Leaphart, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Jackson Nowacek, Biology (BS)
  • Magdalena Phillips, Biology (BS)
  • Ayumi Tsuyuki, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Chuwen (Giselle) Wang, Economics (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