The 50-Ton Patient

Rosalind Rolland, V84, studies right whales, trying to bring them back from the brink of extinction

Right whales in the ocean

It was an ordinary day in 2007 when Rosalind Rolland, V84, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, got a call from USA Today asking how she felt about her award. “What award?” she replied—only to learn she had been singled out for having one of the worst jobs in science. Popular Science’s annual “Bottom 10” awards, which “salute men and women who do what no salary can adequately reward,” had put Rolland at No. 10, under “whale feces researcher: they scoop up whale dung, then dig through it for clues.”

“I love their idea of how we are doing this,” she said with a good-natured laugh. She gestured at a framed illustration on the wall of her Boston office. It’s the artwork from the Pop Sci story: three intrepid figures ride an inflatable raft, one of them raising a bucket up under a whale’s tail.

Rolland, for her part, considers her work enormously satisfying. “I spend days at sea around one of the most endangered animals in the world. What could be better?” And in fact, she has developed a whole new way to study these animals that you can’t exactly take out of the water and put on an examining table. The results are being used to help protect them.

Rolland never set out to specialize in whale feces, or even marine mammals. “I followed interesting jobs, ones where I was going to keep learning, where there were important questions,” she said.

“I spend days at sea around one of the most endangered animals in the world,” said Rosalind Rolland, V84, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. “What could be better?”  Photo: Alonso Nichols“I spend days at sea around one of the most endangered animals in the world,” said Rosalind Rolland, V84, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. “What could be better?” Photo: Alonso Nichols
Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rolland always wanted to be a veterinarian. After she was accepted into the second class of Tufts’ new veterinary school, her attention turned to the health of animals, people and their environment—“that conservation medicine focus”—and she got her first taste the summer of her second year.

“I managed to get grant funding and did a research project with Stuart Levy, an incredible M.D. who runs two research labs at Tufts medical school, and a primatologist by the name of Glenn Hausfater,” she said. Under their mentorship, she set up a field lab in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.

“That actually was the beginning of my poop career,” Rolland said. It wasn’t easy, though. Tasked with analyzing baboon feces for signs that antibiotic resistance was being transferred through the food chain, she traveled alone to the other side of the world bearing 300 pounds of petri dishes, bacterial media and other supplies to meet someone she had spoken to only on the phone.

She had expected at least a Bunsen burner in the three-sided thatched lean-to that would serve as her lab, but ended up having to make a tinfoil incubator that could be warmed by sunlight. “And then a civil war broke out,” she said, referring to the 1982 coup attempt in Kenya. Rolland learned about it when a fellow researcher was killed. He’d happened to drive into town as the Kenyan army and air force were fighting in the streets.

After sheltering in place until the conflict ended, Rolland returned to Massachusetts, stool samples in hand. The resulting study, published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, compared the bacteria found in three sets of samples: one from a group of baboons that was foraging in the trash from a tourist lodge, and the others from two separate groups of baboons that had little to no contact with anything touched by humans.

“We found knockdown, drag-out, awesome differences,” said Rolland. The baboons that had contact with human waste tested positive for high levels of bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics, while the baboons foraging out in the savannah had only trace levels of any such bacteria. Rolland said the experience of coming up with such findings was transformative.

After veterinary school, she completed a one-year internship in small animal medicine and surgery, spent two years caring for pets in a private practice and then returned to working with primates, spending seven years caring for research animals in several labs. Soon after, however, she again heeded the call of the wild. “Over time, I realized I just wanted to work with animals in a free-range setting,” she said.

The turning point was a lecture by Theodora Colborn, director of a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) program studying how manmade chemicals in the environment affect the offspring of wild animals. “She was very much a force of nature, the Rachel Carson of her era,” said Rolland, who worked for Colborn for five years at the WWF. Together, they studied Great Lakes wildlife populations with breeding problems, birth defects or developmental delays that suggested toxins were disrupting hormone function.

Whale of a Task

In 1998, Rolland left the WWF to serve as science director for Cummings School’s new Center for Conservation Medicine. Two years later, the National Marine Fisheries Service approached her for help in setting forth the research agenda to figure out a wildlife crisis. The number of calves born to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales had recently plummeted, so much so that only one calf had been born in 2000. Rolland signed on.

The aquarium’s research vessel, the Nereid, is dwarfed by its subjects, including Arpeggio, the female right whale pictured here. Illustration: Scott Landry, Center for Coastal StudiesThe aquarium’s research vessel, the Nereid, is dwarfed by its subjects, including Arpeggio, the female right whale pictured here. Illustration: Scott Landry, Center for Coastal Studies
Right whales are probably the most egregious example of wildlife slaughter in our history,” she said. Whalers dubbed the species the “right” one to hunt because of its copious blubber, which was harvested for oil, and its baleen, which the animals use to strain plankton from the water and humans used as a primitive plastic. Right whales also made easy targets because they were slow-moving and lived close to shore. “They were just about wiped off the Earth,” Rolland noted.

Indeed, North Atlantic right whales were actually believed to be almost extinct in the northern hemisphere for more than six decades. Then, in 1980, Scott Kraus, chief scientist for marine mammals at the New England Aquarium, spotted several right whale mothers and calves while doing an aerial survey of marine mammals in the Bay of Fundy as part of an environmental impact assessment for a proposed oil refinery off the coast of Nova Scotia. It was “like finding a brontosaurus in your backyard,” he wrote in The Urban Whale, the book he co-authored and edited with Rolland.

For the past 37 years, ever since scientists realized that the right whale population was in trouble, the New England Aquarium has led conservation efforts for the species, using research gathered by dozens of institutions up and down the Eastern seaboard. “It’s the most phenomenal example of cooperation in science,” said Rolland, who has worked at the aquarium since 2000. “Everybody contributes their data to the Right Whale Catalogue, which is curated here at the aquarium.”

Today, there are only about 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, but thanks to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s work, scientists can draw on more than 700,000 images and associated information about more than 685 individual whales, with records dating back to 1935. They can identify individual whales by their callosities: white patches on each head that are as unique as birthmarks. (Callosities are actually skin callouses colored by pale whale lice.) And much is known about each animal’s adventures based on reported sightings—say, being spotted with a new calf or entangled in fishing lines.

Yet scientists still find it hard to understand the “inner whale,” Rolland said, partly because of the sheer size of the animals. The aquarium’s 29-foot-long research vessel, the Nereid, is dwarfed by its 50-foot-long, 50-ton subjects. On top of that, whales are not very cooperative patients. Even veterinarians and scientists who get up close see only “the tip of the iceberg,” said Rolland, “and whales don’t like to be touched.”

Visual Cues to Health

Accordingly, Rolland’s work at the New England Aquarium has focused on noninvasive ways to monitor individual whales and the population as a whole. First, she set out to determine whether the animals’ outward appearance reveals anything about their health. “I knew from my work with primates and terrestrial wildlife that people were using visual health scoring to assess body condition. I thought, maybe we can assess them using photographs.”

She and her colleagues started looking at the images they had of whales known to be in poor health, such as Churchill, a once-vital male that got entangled in fishing gear and couldn’t be saved.

They asked themselves what obvious visual clues might indicate that these weren’t healthy animals and from there developed a scoring system based on four physical parameters: skin condition; overall body condition (the animal’s weight, judged by its neck roll of fat); the presence of orange cyamids (a kind of whale lice often seen around the blowhole of injured animals); and “rake marks” (lines in the skin that become more prominent on whales in poor health).

Rolland’s associate, Heather Pettis, then scored all the existing research photographs of right whales. The resulting data help scientists monitor the health of individual whales and have been used to model overall population health over the past three decades. “We’ve found external appearance does reflect certain aspects of health,” Rolland said. “Eighty-eight percent of whales with poor body condition do not survive, and visual health scores are worse during poor calving years.”

Rolland next investigated ways to check whales’ health by taking samples from them. That’s when dung came back into her professional life. From her previous lab medicine work with primates, and from the work of other scientists who had studied free-ranging elephants, giraffes, primates and wolves, she knew that fecal samples contain measurable levels of hormones. She also knew that the whales’ vermilion-colored floating waste was possible to find. “There are very few samples you can get from whales, but we can get poop,” she said.

The Scoop on the Poop

However, she did have to figure out how to collect it. Her first step was to consider the animals’ food source: a teeny crustacean about the size of a grain of rice. “I thought that’s what’s coming out the other end, so that’s the size I start with.” Then she contacted a researcher who studies the crustacean in Cape Cod Bay. He told her that he used a plankton net made by a Florida company. And then she enlisted the Florida company to make a net of the same fineness and put it on a hoop that could be attached to an extendable six-foot pole. “You can buy one, too,” joked Rolland. “It’s in their catalog. It makes a great Christmas present.”

A collection tool in hand, she headed to the ocean to hunt for whale feces. She was not disappointed. “We sometimes come across a floating little chunk and sometimes a field of chunks. It can be pounds of poop, but either way, we collect a couple of lab jars’ worth,” she said.

Data captured by hydrophones shows a day outside Boston Harbor. The tiny dots are the sounds of right whales calling to each other. They’re drowned out by the noise of ships (the large, bright bursts) passing by. Illustration: Christopher W. Clark, Cornell UniversityData captured by hydrophones shows a day outside Boston Harbor. The tiny dots are the sounds of right whales calling to each other. They’re drowned out by the noise of ships (the large, bright bursts) passing by. Illustration: Christopher W. Clark, Cornell University
“The first question I asked of the samples was whether I could develop a test to find out if these whales were even getting pregnant.” As it turned out, she could. Her studies revealed that the fecal samples of pregnant female whales show highly elevated levels of progestagen and estrogen. Rolland also discovered that whale feces can be tested for four other hormones, including cortisol, which is linked to the stress response in humans and other species. The result was more insight into the inner life of whales. Just before it died, one whale that was entangled in fishing gear and could not be freed had cortisol levels four times what’s considered normal, so “we feel confident the hormones are actually reflecting a whale’s condition,” said Rolland.

Most recently, Rolland and her team have been refining ways to tap two other sources of whale hormones.

Learning how to interpret hormones in blow spray—caught with bridal-veil tulle or plastic plates attached to a pole poised over surfacing whales—is “sort of the Holy Grail,” she said. That’s because with blow spray, researchers could theoretically sample animals at will, instead of having to wait for material to, uh, surface, as it must with feces.

This could be useful if, say, an energy company was going to do some seismic testing offshore and researchers wanted to know the whales’ stress levels before and after the event. While the process for analyzing the spray is still in the R&D stage, Rolland said her team has been able to measure six different hormones. She also reported that Elizabeth Burgess, an associate scientist at the aquarium, is making good progress on determining how saltwater mixed in with the respiratory droplets skews results.

The Rings of Life

Sampling baleen—the whale plankton filter—from whale carcasses provides data about a whale’s condition over time, too, but it is data of a different sort. “Baleen sampling is a really a neat technique, because it doesn’t just give you one point in time; it gives you a decade’s worth of data or more,” Rolland said. She and her team have found that every 2- to 4-centimeter-wide slice of baleen corresponds to a few months in a whale’s life, much like the rings in a tree trunk. After drilling each tiny slice into dust and mixing it in a solution, the scientists can detect measurable levels of two hormones.

Now Rolland is leading a large baleen study on deceased bowhead whales, for which little individual animal or population data exists. “Bowhead whales used to live in this pristine zone, and that is changing quickly with global climate change,” she said. “The sea ice is disappearing rapidly. There’s more ship traffic coming through. Fishing activity is moving north. This will be a way for us to see how often bowhead whales calve and whether that is changing. We’ll also get a baseline of stress hormones and then be able to follow what their stress looks like going forward.”

Long-term data sets like these can produce compelling evidence to make changes that would help whales, noted Rolland, pointing to her 2012 study in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The data for that study was collected nearly a decade earlier, during the days before and after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, when Rolland happened to be on the aquarium’s annual field research trip to study right whales in the Bay of Fundy.

In 2009, after the Office of Naval Research asked her to participate in a workshop exploring the effects of ocean noise on whale health, she remembered that another researcher, Susan Parks, had been recording whale sounds in the bay on the 2001 trip—and realized that combining her data with Parks’ would offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see how noise from typical ocean traffic affects right whales’ stress levels. That’s because in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when she and Parks were still at sea, security concerns shut down all shipping ports for a spell.

Rosalind Rolland focuses on noninvasive ways to monitor whales’ health. Here she catches blow spray using bridal-veil tulle poised over a surfacing whale in order to study the hormone levels in the respiratory sample. Photos: New England Aquarium; top, Elizabeth Burgess; bottom, Amy KnowltonRosalind Rolland focuses on noninvasive ways to monitor whales’ health. Here she catches blow spray using bridal-veil tulle poised over a surfacing whale in order to study the hormone levels in the respiratory sample. Photos: New England Aquarium; top, Elizabeth Burgess; bottom, Amy Knowlton
“Those days were like being in the primal ocean; there was no one out on the water,” Rolland said. “And when we looked back at the samples from those days, we found that stress levels in the whales dropped dramatically. It was the first evidence that ship noise was causing physiologic effects. High levels of stress hormones are bad for you. Over the short term, they may help you deal with whatever is threatening you. But over the long term, you see direct suppression of reproduction, immune suppression and all sorts of other problems.”

The 9/11 study has helped scientists talk to people in the shipping industry about mitigating underwater noise, said Rolland. “Ninety percent of global trade is carried by ships, so you can’t just stop shipping. But we know in certain areas, like outside the entrance to Boston Harbor, right whales’ ability to hear each other is obliterated 60 to 80 percent of the time. Right whales and all cetaceans live in a world of sound. That’s how they communicate with their young, and it’s how they have social interactions so that they can reproduce, find food and avoid predators.”

In 2014, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, took its first steps to address the problem, issuing voluntary guidelines for ship quieting. Rolland said she’s optimistic that the industry will come around to adopting these, because ship noise is linked to energy inefficiency, and technology to silence it not only exists, but is in use on naval vessels.

Even more encouragingly, scientists, the shipping industry and the IMO have already shown that they can come together to help whales, Rolland said. They’ve moved shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy and at the entrance to Boston Harbor so that boats stay out of the areas with the most right and humpback whales. They’ve slowed ships down during seasons when right whales are in Cape Cod Bay and Massachusetts Bay. They’ve instituted an advisory system to tell ships where right whales are, based on information from an underwater system that listens for the animals. “It has been a huge effort, and it’s really made a difference,” she said. “And it turns out that slowing ships down even saves the industry money because the fuel economy is better.”

Such developments help Rolland hold on to her practical, cooperative mind-set, and go a long way toward ensuring that her work will remain a joy for her. “I think you wouldn’t be in this business if you weren’t basically an optimist, because you’d be too depressed,” she said. “But I have faith in technological solutions and working with all the stakeholders to make real progress on these tough issues. Polarized attitudes don’t get you where you want to go.”

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at

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