News Column

Deadly Dolphin Virus Spreads Along East Coast

August 30, 2013

Dolphins in central and south Florida may have been exposed to a virus blamed for this summer's massive dolphin die-off, the worst since the late 1980s.

The 333 marine mammal deaths that have occurred so far this summer have all been in waters off New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

But Adam Schaefer, a researcher with Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, said he and his colleagues have seen evidence of exposure to the morbillivirus among Indian River Lagoon bottlenose dolphins.

"It is possible that it could spread," Schaefer said in an e-mail this week. "The situation will certainly be monitored and any cases we uncover will be reported to the National Marine Fisheries."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Program has tested 33 of the dead dolphins for morbillivirus, and 32 were positive.

NOAA strandings coordinator Teri Rowles said during a conference call with reporters this week that most of the dead dolphins -- 174 -- were in Virginia. North Carolina had the second highest rate, with 42 strandings. That state averages 10 dolphin deaths a year. Rowles said.

NOAA scientists tested four of the dead dolphins in North Carolina, and all test results came back "suspicious positive" for morbillivirus, Rowles said.

All of these deaths occurred north of Cape Hatteras. One dead dolphin was found stranded south of Hatteras, but Rowles said that tests for morbillavirus came back negative.

According to NOAA, morbillivirus mostly infects dolphins' lungs and brains. The virus typically spreads through inhalation of respiratory particles or through direct contact between the animals.

Animals can also be exposed through the eyes, mouth, stomach, skin wounds and through the urogenital tract, NOAA says in a fact sheet.

The morbillivirus cannot be spread from animals to humans.

If history is an indicator, the situation could get much worse for the dolphins. Between 1987 and 1988, the virus killed more than 740 marine mammals from New Jersey to Florida.

"During a previous epizootic of morbillivirus in the late 1980's, it did reach central Florida along the coast," Schaefer said.

"We have published on and continue to engage in research aimed at better understanding the complex disease process of this unique virus," he added.

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(c)2013 The Reporter (Tavernier, Fla.)

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Source: Copyright Reporter (Tavernier, FL) 2013


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