A deadly virus that was identified this summer is spreading south with migrating pods of bottlenose dolphins. Even more troubling, the virus has now also been identified in two species of whales.
Following a number of deaths this summer, researchers identified what they believed to be the culprit: morbillivirus. The virus belongs to a family of viruses that affect different species in different ways. It causes measles in people and canine distemper in dogs, and various strains can cause a number of problems for marine species, including whales, dolphins, seals and sea otters.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the virus has affected dolphins of all ages, causing skin lesions, brain infections, pneumonia or secondary infections. While live dolphins have been found in some cases, the majority are washing up dead and decomposed, which has made studying them difficult.
The die-off has been classified as an Unusual Mortality Event and has already resulted in the deaths of more dolphins than the last major outbreak that killed more than 740 between June 1987 and March 1988. That die-off and other events led to the creation of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, which coordinates response efforts and investigations with organizations in its Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
“We are less than halfway through that time frame, and we have surpassed the number of cetacean strandings reported in the 87-88 die-off,” Teri Rowles, coordinator of NOAA’s response program told Wired. “There is no vaccine that is developed that can be deployed for a large, wild population of bottlenose dolphins. Or any cetacean species.”
Concerns were previously raised that two migratory populations who head south for the winter will infect resident populations who live off the coast of southern states. The virus was originally reported in New York and Virginia this summer and has been seen in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina since then. Last week Florida confirmed its first fatality at Jacksonville Beach, and response teams in the south are bracing for the impact.
A few other species including common dolphins and spotted dolphins who have been tested are free of the virus so far, but scientists are even more worried because it has spread to two species of whales. According to Wired, three out of four dead humpback whales and two out of three dead pygmy sperm whales have tested positive for the virus, but researchers are waiting on more test results to determine whether it’s what killed them, or whether they were just exposed to it.
Humans are unlikely to contract this virus from dolphins, but NOAA is advising those who find stranded dolphins not to touch them and keep pets away in case they have secondary infections that could pose a risk. People are also advised to resist the urge to help stranded dolphins back into the water, not only because they need medical attention, but because they could continue to spread the disease to others.
The agency is also asking people to contact their local stranding network or local authorities to report a live or dead stranded dolphin by calling 1-866-755-6622 in the Northeast and 1-877-942-5343 in the Southeast. Dolphin & Whale 911, a free reporting app from NOAA, is also available for iPhones and Androids.
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