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Virus Killing Dolphins Spreads South to Carolinas and Florida

Virus Killing Dolphins

A measles-like virus outbreak that's been killing bottlenose dolphins, has now been spotted in two species of whale.

Between July 1 and November 3, at least 753 animals have died because of the viral outbreak. Researchers have identified the cause as dolphin morbillivirus, a pathogen that’s related to human measles and canine distemper. Morbillivirus infects dolphins’ lungs and brains, causing weird behaviors and skin lesions and pneumonia (but the marine mammals can’t pass it on to humans).

The outbreak first began along the East coast between New York and Virginia this summer. Now, carcasses are washing ashore in the Carolinas and Florida because of migration to the South for Winter.

A bottlenose dolphin stranded in Ormond Beach on Thursday afternoon showed visible signs of the virus killing the other dolphins, federal officials said Friday.

The die-off has already been classified as an Unusual Mortality Event by the federal government – a designation that frees up resources and sends investigators and responders to the hardest-hit areas.

The NOAA state on their website, "Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (as amended), an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) has been declared for bottlenose dolphins in the Mid-Atlantic region from early July 2013 through the present. Elevated strandings of bottlenose dolphins have occurred in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. All age classes of bottlenose dolphins are involved and strandings range from a few live animals to mostly dead animals with many very decomposed. Many dolphins have presented with lesions on their skin, mouth, joints, or lungs."

It’s already exceeded the last major morbillivirus outbreak on the East Coast that lasted for 11 months, between June 1987 and May 1988, that claimed 742 dolphins, reported Wired.

“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,” said Teri Rowles, the coordinator of NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. “There is no vaccine that is developed that can be deployed for a large, wild population of bottlenose dolphins. 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 recent weeks, federal officials and local stranding networks have started looking for the source of the virus.

As the virus hits Florida, it has begun to infect whales as stated above. Three humpback whales and two pygmy whales who washed ashore tested positive for the morbillivirus, though researchers are still testing to determine whether or not it was the cause of death.

Scientists do not yet know what, if any, impact the virus might have on the resident population of bottlenose dolphins that live in Florida waters year round.

NOAA is trying to discourage well-meaning people from pushing ailing dolphins back into the water, both from a humane perspective and because pushing the animal back into the ocean increases the chances of further spreading the virus, she said. Most of the animals that do strand alive are critically ill and in need of medical attention, Rowles said.

If you see a stranded whale or dolphin, you can call your local stranding coordinator or the NOAA hotline at 1-877-WhaleHelp

NOAA has the following safety tips:

  • Do not touch the dolphin.
  • Don’t allow pets to approach the dolphin.
  • Observe the animal from a safe distance of 100 yards (safe for you and the animal)

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