Cause of Dolphin Deaths Identified

A spate of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) deaths along the Mid-Atlantic coast this summer has been linked to morbillivirus, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

So far, 357 dolphins have washed ashore dead or dying since July, and the number of stranded dolphins continues to rise. As many as 32 dolphins have tested positive for the virus, according to NOAA. While officials are not ruling out other possible contributing causes such as chemical exposure, the deaths have so far only been linked to the virus.


A bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) stranded on the New Jersey coast. Thirty two stranded dolphins have tested positive for morbillivirus, an infectious pathogen now linked to the unusual mortality event. (Credit: New Jersey Marine Mammal Stranding Center).

Morbillivirus is a common marine virus that affects marine mammals. It ravaged bottlenose dolphin populations in the Mid-Atlantic region in the late 1980s, killing more than 700 dolphins. The virus — similar to canine distemper in canines and measles in humans — suppresses the immune system, leaving infected animals vulnerable to other illnesses like pneumonia. No vaccines are available, and experts say the deaths could continue into next spring, according to a report by The Washington Post.

Although not harmful to humans, NOAA officials caution beachgoers to keep a safe distance of at least 100 yards away from stranded dolphins and to avoid swimming with open cuts or scratches as secondary infections can be contagious.

Originally published by The Wildlife Society on August 29, 2013.

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