Getting to the hearts of whales to assist human cardiology SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

October 28, 1990|By Ana Arana

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Bogota, Colombia--Scientists working with humpback whales

off the Pacific coast of Colombia have obtained valuable electrocardiograms that can be used in human heart research.

Working near the Pacific island of Gorgona, Colombian scientistaccompanied by U.S. and European cardiologists and marine biologists followed the tempestuous whales, known for their frantic jumps out of the water. The whales come to the Pacific coast every year to mate, with the males engaging in a loud mating ceremony.

The scientists obtained the electrocardiograms by shooting aelectronic dart into one of the whales and following it for three hours.

"We obtained several readings, including the longest available ithe world, which lasted 10 minutes," said Jorge Reynolds, the Colombian electrical engineer who designed the dart. Mr. Reynolds works with an interdisciplinary group of Colombian scientists who have studied mammal hearts and applied the findings to heart research. His investigations are now backed by an international group of scientists.

A whale's heart is 4,500 times larger than the human heart. A grown person would be able to stand erect in any of the heart's chambers. But Mr. Reynolds said the mammal's heart is incredibly similar to human hearts in structure.

The size of the whale's heart gives investigators a good view "For cardiologists, it is like studying a human heart through a microscope," Mr. Reynolds said.

"The cardiogram gives cardiologists lots of information on heardiseases such as arrhythmias, which cause heart attacks," added Mr. Reynolds, who built the first pacemakers in Colombia 30 years ago.

Accompanying the expedition were heart researchers from Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and New York Montefiore Medical Center Hospital and leading scientists from Europe and Latin America. Roger Payne, an American who has studied whale behavior for several years, was also a member of the group.

The expedition tested several experimental devices built iColombia. Using a small submarine fitted with a waterproof camera, the expedition was able to document the mating process. Also tested were small antenna disks that measured the sound waves of the male whales, which sing to attract females.

The scientists were not able to test a monitor that will be used in an expedition next year to track whales by satellite.

The monitor, shaped like the crustaceans that normally attach to the whale's back, was supposed to be placed with an electrical arm on the whale near its breathing hole. However, when members of the group attempted to place the device on one of the first whales they spotted, the arm was too short and the whale was able to elude the boat.

Later this month, Mr. Reynolds and some of his associates wilmake a trip to Port Pyramid, 600 miles south of Buenos Aires, where austral whales congregate at this time of the year.

"We wanted to test the monitor on the humpback, but we will have to test it on the australs, which are more passive and won't pose the same logistical problems as the humpbacks," Mr. Reynolds said.

Mr. Reynolds said his group has made important advances icardiology and marine biology.

The project for next year, for example, will provide ample information on the migratory habits of the humpbacks, which are the least studied whales in the world.

Working on a shoestring budget, Mr. Reynolds says he has not been able to interest the Colombian government in his work. "Our government still thinks science research is not a serious endeavor," he said. Most of his funds come in the form of donations from international corporations based in Colombia.

"But we are doing high-technology research in aunderdeveloped country," said Mr. Reynolds, who added that it took a lot of work to receive trust from the international scientific community. For his current research, Mr. Reynolds has received the backing of the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Science and support from the Seventh Conference on Biology in Marine Mammals, held in Miami in 1987.

Working with an interdisciplinary group of Colombiaresearchers, including marine biologists, cardiologists, engineers and industrial designers, Mr. Reynolds says his work has been productive because of the crossover among several fields of science. The researchers do not receive any payment for their work in the expedition.

There have been three worldwide expeditions to take electrocardiograms from whales. The first took place in 1953 in Clark Point, on Alaska's Bristol Bay, and was conducted by Dr. Paul White, an American cardiologist. The two others were led in the 1980s by Mr. Reynolds. The first whale heart reading was obtained only in the third attempt in 1985.

Ana Arana writes frequently for The Sun from Colombia.

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