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One possible cause of the dolphin strandings may be morbillivirus, a measles-like disease that devastated bottlenose dolphins in the 1980s. (Doug Perrine / Nature Picture Library)

Dolphins in Danger

Dolphins along the U.S. East Coast face a deadly threat

By Michelle Bruner | August 15 , 2013
<p>Since July, 124 dolphins have been found stranded on beaches from Virginia to New York. (Jim McMahon)</p>

Since July, 124 dolphins have been found stranded on beaches from Virginia to New York. (Jim McMahon)

You probably know that bottlenose dolphins have a friendly nature and are able to learn to do simple tasks. They are favorites to perform at marine parks around the world and have also starred on TV shows and in movies. But recently a high number of bottlenose dolphins from the Atlantic Ocean have been found stranded on beaches between New York and Virginia. This means they have washed up on shore and been either dead or unable to get back into the ocean on their own. The dolphins that were alive when they landed on shore were very sick.

Since July, 124 stranded dolphins have been found. This is seven times higher than the average amount usually found during this time of year.

A VIRUS IN THE SEA?

It’s still too early for researchers to know what caused the dolphins to die. But some scientists think the morbillivirus, a measles-like disease, may be the cause. So far they’ve determined that the virus infected at least one of the stranded dolphins.

Dolphins previously experienced a massive epidemic (disease outbreak) of morbillivirus in the 1980s. But it could take months for researchers to discover whether another epidemic has begun.

Teri Rowles, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is investigating the connection. “We’re not saying that this is a morbillivirus outbreak,” she told reporters, “but because of the size of it right now, everybody’s making that link at this point.”

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH

Dolphins aren’t the only animals experiencing a decrease in their populations. North American bats and honey bees have also suffered declining (dropping) numbers. Some researchers think that environmental issues—such as pollution, the use of dangerous chemicals, and the destruction of animal habitats—may be indirect causes of this bigger problem.

Change in an animal’s environment can weaken its immune system, or bodily functions that protect a living thing from disease. This makes the animal more likely to become sick.

“This is really frightening, because these animals are sentinels of ocean health,” says Susan Barco, a research coordinator at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center Foundation. “We think it’s an indication of the health of our ecosystem.”

The high number of stranded dolphins has prompted NOAA scientists to label the phenomenon an “unusual mortality (death) event.” This label allows the federal government to step in and provide funds to help our ocean neighbors. Additional researchers will also begin investigating the cause of the deaths.

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