Dolphin Die-Off 2013: Morbillivirus Spreads South, May Be Infecting Whales

By Josh Lieberman on November 12, 2013 3:35 PM EST

bottlenose dolphin
A massive bottlenose dolphin die-off has spread south as the dolphins migrate. About 800 dolphins have died from morbillivirus. (Photo: Reuters)

The massive dolphin die-off which began earlier this summer between New York and Virginia has moved south. As bottlenose dolphins migrate to warmer waters, they appear to be carrying a deadly morbillivirus along with them. The virus has killed at least 753 dolphins since July, making the 2013 dolphin die-off larger than the 1987-88 event--and the die-off shows no sign of ending soon.

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"We're less than halfway through that [1987-88] time frame and we have surpassed the number of Cetaceans in that die-off," said Teri Rowles, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Program. "There is no vaccine that can be deployed for a large bottlenose dolphin population or any cetacean species....Currently there is nothing that can be done to prevent the infection spreading, or prevent animals that get infected from having severe clinical disease."

In South Carolina, three of eight dead dolphins that have washed up since September have tested positive for morbillivirus; results are pending for another four dead dolphins. In Florida, one dolphin that washed up in Ormond Beach showed signs of morbillivirus, federal officials said on Friday. 

To make matters worse, dolphin morbillivirus appears to be making its way to other species. Three humpback whales and two pygmy whales have tested positive for the virus, though the NOAA are doing further tests to confirm this. "Slightly elevated" numbers of whales have strayed in New York and Delaware, but that isn't necessarily related to the morbillivirus.

Morbillivirus belongs to a family of RNA viruses that manifest themselves in a variety of ways in different animals. In cattle, morbillivirus causes rinderpest, or cattle plague. In humans, the virus causes measles (humans cannot contract morbillivirus from dolphins, though). And in dolphins, morbillivirus suppresses the immune system, leading to other infections and weight loss.

The NOAA is asking that anyone who spots a stranded dolphin or whale contact them. The NOAA has also created an Android and iPhone app called  Dolphin & Whale 911 which can be used to report strandings. 

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