Dead Dolphins On East Coast: What Is Causing 'Alarming' And Mysterious Trend?

By iScienceTimes Staff on August 5, 2013 4:34 PM EDT

dolphin
Dead dolphins are washing up on the mid-Atlantic shoreline in "alarming" numbers, and experts are struggling to figure out why. (Photo: Reuters)

Scores of dead dolphins have been showing up on East Coast shores, and scientists are trying to figure out why.

In the past two months, over 120 dead dolphins have washed up on shores from Virginia and New Jersey. In July alone, 44 bottlenose dolphins have been found on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. While dolphins wash up on the Virginia shore every year, the number of dead dolphins in July was eight times higher than usual.

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"We've had a steady number coming in at the beginning of the summer, and starting last week, the numbers spiked," said Susan Barco, research coordinator for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. "We're just trying to keep our head above water."

The numbers in states other than Virginia are alarming too: 21 dead dolphins so far this year in New Jersey, as compared to typical 12 each year; 10 baby dolphins have washed up since June in Delaware, where a typical death toll is five; and in Maryland, there have been four dead dolphins this season, as compared to only one in a typical year.

"It is alarming since it's much higher than normal and in such a short amount of time," said Jennifer Dittmar from the National Aquarium in Baltimore. "As far as an overall effect it's having on the population, it's hard to tell right now."

So what may be causing the spate of dead dolphins?

In New Jersey, officials say four of the dolphins died from pneumonia. But at least one dolphin showed signs of morbillivirus, a naturally occurring condition that killed 90 dolphins in New Jersey in 1987. So the 2013 epidemic of dead dolphins could be the result of morbillivirus, which may be spreading among dolphins.

"Dolphins swim close together in pods. Diseases spread between animals when they surface to breathe," said Robert Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center.

One thing that Schoelkopf said could be ruled out as the cause of the dead dolphins is water quality.

"There is no evidence that the deaths we are seeing this summer are in any way related to water quality," he said.

The Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program, part of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, said water quality this year "has been excellent."
In Virginia, around 60 volunteers are walking coastlines to find dead dolphin carcasses in order to find further clues into the dead dolphin epidemic. Swimmers are cautioned to stay away from dead dolphins, as they may attract sharks.

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