An ounce of whale to learn tons


  • Cut of a beluga biopsy
  • Photo credit: © GREMM

Genetic secrets, accumulated pollutants and even diet are examples of data that can be collected thanks to a tiny piece of skin and fat. All that’s needed is a crossbow armed with a dart-tipped bolt (arrow). In this manner a few milligrams of skin and fat are sampled without immobilizing the whale and without disturbing it for more than a few seconds. In the St. Lawrence, MICS has been using this technique since 1990 to determine the sex of humpback, blue, fin and minke whales. The GREMM has been conducting biopsies on belugas since 1994 to identify their sex and family links and since 1998 on fin whales to determine notably where these giants are from.

Does it hurt?

Risks and benefits of biopsies

Before they began to be performed, beluga biopsies underwent careful scrutiny by the GREMM. After all, we’re talking about collecting a small piece of skin and fat from a living animal belonging to a threatened population. After weighing the pros and cons, the GREMM decided in 1994 to go forward while closely monitoring the potential risks of this type of intervention. During her master’s program at McGill University and under the GREMM’s supervision, Véronik de la Chenelière conducted a detailed analysis of the risks and benefits of this technique based on three years of data. In her thesis, she proposes a process to facilitate decision-making for research projects conducted on protected populations. This process, rather general in nature, can help researchers in their studies of protected populations. She concluded that biopsies represent few risks for St. Lawrence belugas, but rather that they can provide significant benefits to this population since the project is designed to protect this species.

  • Video credit: © GREMM
  • 0:00 – Aboard the Bleuvet, the GREMM crew sets out to conduct beluga research.
  • 0:07 – Photo-identification and data collection.
  • 0:26 – One of the belugas is biopsied.
  • 0:37 – Cutting of skin and fat sample.