Dr. Vanessa Pirotta – Wildlife Scientist

Dr. Vanessa Pirotta is a wildlife scientist and science communicator. Her research uses innovative technologies for wildlife conservation. Vanessa’s zoological background has taken her around the world for wildlife research. Her keen interests cover topics of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, also known as STEM.

It’s taken a Science degree, a Master’s degree, and a part-time job at a zoo to study marine biology and realize her dream of working with marine animals. She began to study marine biology with a Science degree at ANU majoring in Zoology, Evolution, and Ecology.

My PhD is heavily conservation based. As part of this, I am investigating the use of emerging technologies such as drones for whale conservation. I saw the potential in collecting biological samples such as whale snot as an assessment of whale health.

Vanessa Pirotta

I learned from Vanessa’s thesis that it’s not just water shooting up from their blowholes as whales surface from the ocean. It’s a mixture of snot and saltwater, a goldmine for the DNA Vanessa needs to sample.

It’s not easy to collect either. Collecting samples from beached or hunted whales was once the only option, but it was far from ideal. Now, with a drone, it can fly through the whale blow, open a Petree dish, collect the DNA, bacteria, and hormones, close the dish, and return to the boat. The health of the whales can then be determined in a laboratory. It sounds disgusting, but the snot is used by researchers to do health check-ups on giant mammals — and even to identify whales that are pregnant.

More recently, marine scientists have been using poles with collection devices at the end to collect whale snot but this means close approaches to whales. The use of drones is a great non-invasive option which lets us to collect whale snot from free-swimming humpback whales.

Vanessa Pirotta

It may also help the researchers crack one of the mysteries of Australia’s whale population — why Southern right whale numbers have bounced back on the west coast but remain stubbornly low in south-eastern Australia. About 30,000 humpbacks from Antarctica will swim along Australia’s coast to their breeding grounds in the warm waters of Queensland. It has been a long road to recovery after humpbacks were decimated by whalers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was not until the Endangered Species Act was introduced in 1973 that the whales were finally protected in Australian waters. Since then, the population has rebounded from a low point of about 10,000 to almost 100,000, and it continues to grow.

Dr Pirotta has represented Australia internationally as the winner of the world-renowned science communication competition known as FameLab[1] (she placed second). She is also a Superstar of STEM and has participated as a marine mammal expert at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Vanessa is also the author of a picture book The Voyage of Whale and Calf, a gentle story about a newborn humpback whale migrating with his mother along the east coast of Australia. This book is intended not only for a younger demographic but also for an older one, the parents, guardians and teachers, those who would be reading the story. This book is the perfect annual reminder and reflection of the humpback whale migration.

The illustrations in The Voyage of Whale and Calf are by Samantha Metcalfe, She is a natural history illustrator who finds inspiration in the unique biodiversity of the Australian bush. Working primarily in colour pencil, her realistic and detailed illustrations often focus on capturing Australia’s native flora and fauna.

Vanessa leads Sydney’s (Australia) newest citizen science marine program, Wild Sydney Harbour, which is aimed at connecting the community with marine life in their blue backyard. It is a a citizen science project designed to promote an understanding of wildlife in and around Sydney Harbour, Australia.

The information gathered will compliment current scientific research conducted via the Marine Predator Research Group at Macquarie University. Vanessa one day hopes to present a factual science documentary to help inspire younger generations into science.

Shirtloads of
Science Podcast

  1. FameLab is the world’s leading science communication competition. It was designed to inspire, motivate and develop scientists and engineers to actively engage with the public. A partnership with the British Council and the Cheltenham Science Festival saw more than 10,000 emerging scientists and engineers participate from over 30 countries since 2005. In 2021 after 15 successful years worldwide FameLab International competition has come to an end. [Back]

Further Reading


Vanessa Pirotta
Science & Technology Australia
Careers with STEM
Research Gate
CSIRO Publishing
Women’s Agenda
Australia National University
ABC News Australia
Shirtloads of Science

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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