If you ever watch a whale breathe, you'll see plumes of mist shoot out of a hole in its head. Contrary to popular belief, that's not seawater. It's actually a cocktail mix of hot air and bacteria.
As a whale breaches the surface, it opens its blowhole. It then forces warm air from the lungs into the cold atmosphere. The temperature change triggers water vapor in the whale's breath to condense into water droplets. The same phenomenon happens when you exhale on a cold day. The result is a misty spout that can be seen for miles. But that's only half the story.
Scientists recently observed something new in whale spouts. They collected samples from 26 humpback whales. Within the spouts, they discovered 25 microbial species. The species were different from what was in the seawater indicating that they came from the whale's respiratory tract. This is the first step in understanding lethal disease in whales.
In the last 19 months, an unusually high number of humpbacks died along the Atlantic coast. Respiratory illness is common among stranded and deceased whales. This new record of microbes in healthy whales could help scientists determine what's making whales so sick.
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