Cetacean Conservation and Genomics

The Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Lab is helping to monitor the status of one of the world’s rarest dolphins, the New Zealand Māui dolphin. Read more about this work in page two of our newsletter (pdf).

Using DNA to learn about the secret lives

of whales, dolphins and porpoises


Our lab uses DNA to answer questions related to the conservation and management of whales and dolphins, from the smallest marine dolphin (the New Zealand Māui dolphin) to the largest animal that has ever lived (the blue whale). Today, we can collect DNA in many different ways and from many different sources. We get the best-quality DNA from small biopsy samples of skin tissue, but we also can get DNA from baleen and bones, from feces that is scooped out of the water, from blow samples collected via a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (a drone), and even from filtering seawater (known as environmental DNA).

Once we have the DNA, we can use it to answer questions such as, “How few whales were left after whaling?” “What species of whales and dolphins are sold in fisheries markets?” “How old is this whale or dolphin?” “What are the seasonal destinations of migratory whales?” “What has this whale been eating?” “Are endangered species declining or increasing in numbers?” The answers to these questions will give us a better understanding of the lives of whales and dolphins and help us to better conserve their populations and manage the oceanic ecosystem.

We use genomics to reconstruct the past, assess the present, and conserve the future of whale and dolphin populations.

Take a virtual visit to our lab

Senior Faculty Research Assistant Debbie Steel tours the previous facilities for genetics and genomics of marine species and our research on whales and dolphins. To see part of the NEW facility see Marine Science Day Live!

A gray beluga whale calf with three adults in Cook Inlet, Alaska.
We use DNA to age living beluga whales from the endangered population found in Cook Inlet, Alaska. Learn about the genetic technique that is bringing biologists closer to solving the beluga mystery

The tale of a sperm whale pops out of the water.
Sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico are a relatively isolated population exposed to considerable human impact. Our laboratory is working with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to develop an integrated database of photo-ID and DNA profiles that will be available through the web-based platform ‘Flukebook’. Learn more.