Virus killing bottlenose dolphins along the east coast of the United States, could it spread here?

Morbillivirus causing die-off of dolphins

Along the Mid-Atlantic Coast of the United States, a large number of bottlenose dolphins have been showing up dead.


So much, it has caught the attention of biologist to figure out what's causing the deaths. "Just in the past two weeks strandings have started to increase in Northern North Carolina, north of Cape Hatteras," Erin Fougeres, a Marine Mammal Biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service said.


Sine early July, 364 dolphins have been found dead or on the verge of dying. That's 10 times the normal stranding rate during this time of year.


The deaths have remained a mystery until now. Marine biologist believe the cause may be the morbillivirus.


"It has affects on the brain and the lungs and also on the immune system so they're getting secondary infections, fungal and bacterial infections," Erin said.


This die off is eerily similar to one that happened back in 1987 through 1988. "It started in a similar manner," Erin said.


During that time 50 percent of the coastal migratory dolphins were affected, leaving them with a "depleted" classification from the NOAA.


So why another outbreak 26 years later? The dolphins that were exposed to the virus back then began to develop antibodies and became immune to the virus. As years passed, those dolphins that developed immunity began to die off naturally. "Basically they have reached the tipping point where there's more animals that don't have the antibodies anymore versus those that do," Erin said.


So far there have been no cases of the virus showing up in dolphins here in Florida, but that could soon change as the fall and winter seasons approach. "As they start moving south through the fall and into the winter we would expect that there's a potential for this virus to start spreading down the coast and we will see increased strandings in our area," Erin said.


Since you can't vaccinate dolphins against the virus all biologist can do now is watch and wait for signs of the virus spreading here.

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