In just the past few days, more than 500 pelicans have died on the northern coast of Peru in the same region where over 800 dolphins washed ashore earlier this year. The Peruvian government says that it is launching an investigation and that it is “deeply worried.” According to a preliminary report, no evidence points to the pelicans dying at sea but rather on the beach.
In addition to the 538 dead pelicans, the Peruvian Maritime Institute (Imarpe) has also found the carcasses of 54 boobies (a type of sea bird), a turtle and five badly decomposed sea lions. While the pelicans and boobies were said to be in “various stages of decomposition,” most seemed to have died only recently.
All told, local reports say that 1,200 dead pelicans have been found in Peru’s northern Piura and Lambayeque regions just this year. The 800 or so dead dolphins washed up in the Lambayeque region between January and April of this year.
What’s going on in northern Peru, or in the waters off its coast?
One possible culprit for the dolphin deaths is a virus, says Peru’s Deputy Minister for Natural Resource Development, Gabriel Quijandria Acosta. Previously, a viral epidemic outbreak has been linked to dolphin deaths in Peru and also in Mexico and in the U.S. Stefan Austermuehle of a local NGO, Mundo Azul, told the BBC that initial tests on the dolphins suggests that they may have contracted a morbillivirus, which is part of the same group of viruses that causes measles in humans.
Austermuehle makes two points of interest: First, he says that this virus has killed “up to 50 percent of populations” in the U.S. Secondly, he points out that “animals that have higher loads of pollutants in their body will fall easier victims to these kind of diseases” due to having weakened immune systems. Indeed, ”over 650 dolphins have washed up on the Gulf coast shores since the BP oil spill there” as Care2 blogger Judy Molland has noted in highlighting the dangers of a toxic ocean environment to dolphins.
But what might be causing a massive die-off of pelicans remains a mystery. The Peruvian pelican is listed as a near threatened species on the IUCN Red List, with its numbers fluctuating in association with El Nino. Clearly we need to find out what is causing so many pelicans to die in such dramatic numbers before their population declines even more.
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Photo by Körschgen
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