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.


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 

Team Outputs To Date

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)

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 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

/graduate Team Members

  • Greg Merrill, Ecology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Noelle Fuchs
  • Natalie Kubicki, Biology (BS)
  • Ava Leaphart
  • Jackson Nowacek
  • Magdalena Phillips, Biology (BS)
  • Ayumi Tsuyuki
  • Chuwen (Giselle) Wang

/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