NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The mystery of why so many dolphins have been found dead or dying on the East Coast this summer may be solved.
Marine biologists believe the dolphins could be suffering from a bacterial or viral infection with symptoms that resemble measles.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 488 dolphins have been stranded between New York and North Carolina since July 1. Of those, 333 have died, including 96 in New York and New Jersey. That’s more than nine times the historical average for the region during July and August.
Earlier this month, NOAA declared an unusual mortality event to provide additional resources to study what was causing the deaths.
In a post on its website, NOAA says the tentative cause of the deaths is the cetacean morbillivirus. Dolphins with morbillivirus typically experience skin lesions, brain infections and pneumonia. The virus killed off more than 700 dolphins in the 1980s.
The disease is passed from dolphin to dolphin. It can’t be transmitted to humans.
Biologist Kim Durham’s rescue team told CBS News they have recovered 27 dead dolphins and doesn’t know why it’s happening.
“When we were doing examinations, we would find they were very skinny animals,” Durham said. “They were compromised animals. Some of them had skin lesions — they were just very sick individuals.”
“There’s a lot of skin contact among them,” Durham said. “They’re constantly rubbing each other, so yeah, the possibility that they’re spreading it among themselves is very large.”
And there is no way to stop the virus from spreading among dolphins.
“Within their behavior, these animals are very social,” said Mendy Garron, a stranding coordinator with the NOAA, “and so if one animal contracts the virus, they can transmit it to another animal.”
But Garron told WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond: “We do not have a way to stop it. But we do have the ability to learn more about the virus.”
Almost daily this summer, researchers with the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research have pulled a sick or dead dolphin from Long Island’s beaches, often covered in lesions.
“We have seen cases of this, but in this number, this is what’s really the concern,” Robert DiGiovanni, director of the Riverhead Foundation, told CBS 2’s Carolyn Gusoff.
“Roxanne” is one of the few dolphins that has recovered, and will soon be released back into the wild.
“It’s always helpful to identify what you think is going on, because once you do that, you can get a better idea of what the effects are going to be,” Durham said.
Scientists said the last time they saw an epidemic like this was 25 years ago, when 750 dolphins died in the span of about one year.
Charles Potter, a marine mammal biologist at the Smithsonian, studied the 1980s epidemic and told CBS News he believes pollution could be weakening the dolphins’ immune system.
“As the animals migrate south, passing back through Virginia and are going down to the Carolinas, if this event follows what we saw in 1987, we can expect the epicenter of the epidemic to move south with the dolphins,” Potter said.
“It will run its course, but there’s no way to know when the end will come,” Durham said.
Now with a possible diagnosis, researchers are examining environmental factors, other dolphins and looking for a source of the virus.
“Perhaps another species of dolphins may have introduced the virus into these native populations that do not have the immunity,” Garron said.
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