Natalie DeWitt

Woodward, Iowa, United States
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I am a scientist working for Cetacea Ecuador. We study humpback whales using sound recordings, DNA and microbiome analysis, and drone footage.
Under the guidance of the cetacean biologist Judith Denkinger, of the University of San Francisco, Quito, we have been conducting a research project on humpback whales off the coast of Ecuador since 1996. This year we are currently filming a documentary about the whales and the people around them to focus attention on the need to improve the health of the oceans to prevent the decline of populations of whales and other marine creatures.

We focus our research on the southeastern hemisphere population of humpbacks, who mate and are born in Ecuadorean waters in June through September, then migrate 3500 miles to the Antartic to feed on plankton. The whales return to Ecuador every summer, providing a unique opportunity to learn about these magnificent creatures and understand how they are affected by human activity.

We were using a Phantom drone to film amazing footage showing whale behavior. Drones are incredibly helpful for us to understand the movements and social behavior of the whales in relation to human disturbance. Beyond that, drones can help us to collect blow samples in order to understand the microbes resident in whale breath to provide a baseline assessment of whale health. We are currently trying to raise money to fund the purchase of a waterproof drone to continue this line of investigation.

One aspect of our research involves collecting DNA samples from the adult whales.  Analyzing these samples provides insights into the relatedness of the Ecuadorean humpbacks to those found in other parts of the world.  

We also collect microbial samples from the blow spouts of the whales, to analyze their microbial communities-- the full complement of bacteria residing in their respiratory system.  Similar to human microbiome analysis, these samples can provide insights to the health of individual whales and to establish a baseline microbiome of healthy, Ecuadorean whales. This information could help in situations where whales become ill, and may provide clues to how pollution affects whale health. 

We take underwater acoustic recordings of the incredibly complex and rich whale songs. The male humpback has the longest and most complex song of the entire animal kingdom. Analyzing these recordings will provide clues to why and how they communicate to each other, and how they may be disturbed by human activities such as shipping and sonar.

We hope that with our research we can bring amazing creatures like humpback whales closer to people and through this effort, make people realize the critical importance of ocean conservation.

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Cetaceans and Marine Fauna
Dr. Judith Denkinger, who heads the project, is a full professor at University of San Francisco, Quito, and has studied humpbacks for 22 years. She has published 27 research articles on cetaceans and other marine fauna. A list of her publications and projects can be found in Research Gate.
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University of Wisconsin, Madison
Ph.D. | Cell and Molecular Biology
1988 - 1994
University of Maryland, College Park
B.S. | Biochemistry
1982 - 1987
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Native or bilingual
Native or bilingual