NOAA says virus is to blame for dolphin deaths

By on August 27, 2013

Bottlenose dolphins. (NOAA)

Bottlenose dolphins. (NOAA)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday the recent outbreak of bottlenose dolphin deaths from North Carolina to New Jersey is being caused by a measles-like virus in the marine mammals.

More than 40 dolphins have been found on the North Carolina coast since July 1, including over two dozen on the Outer Banks between Carova Beach and Avon in the past week alone.

“After a busy weekend, strandings have seemed to slow down,” said Karen Clark, Outer Banks Marine Mammal Stranding Network program coordinator at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education in Corolla.

“We are keeping close track on the forecast, anticipating that another northeast blow will likely bring another surge onto the beach again. It may be that the system toward the end of the week may make for another busy weekend.”

The highest number of deaths have been in Virginia, mostly in the Chesapeake Bay, with nearly 180.

Tentatively, the Unusual Mortality Event is being attributed to cetacean morbillivirus, based on preliminary diagnostic testing and discussion with disease experts, a NOAA news release said.

NOAA said 27 dolphins tested as suspect or confirmed positive for morbillivirus, with five dolphins have been confirmed as cetacean morbillivirus via genetic sequencing.

“Samples from all of our first animals that were tested have come back as suspect positive for morbillivirus,” said Clark. “One more test will be required to give a final positive confirmation.”

“The results from our first four animals were included in the work released by NOAA today indicating cetacean morbillivirus to be the likely cause of these increased strandings,” Clark said.

Brucella sp. bacteria have been found in joint, brain or reproductive organ lesions in four dolphins, all found off Virginia, NOAA said.

Stranded dolphin in New Jersey. (NOAA)

Stranded dolphin in New Jersey. (NOAA)

The agency said they have been investigating Brucella in marine mammal populations across the United States since 2011 and is working closely with stranding network partners, NOAA laboratories, the University of Illinois, the CDC and State Departments of Health, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The investigation is continuing and additional contributory factors to the Unusual Mortality Event are under investigation including other pathogens, biotoxins, range expansion, and others, according to NOAA.

Morbillivirus was also blamed for the death of more than 740 bottlenose dolphins from New Jersey to Florida in 1987-88.

There have been no reported cases of human infection with cetacean morbillivirus, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Morbillviruses tend not to infect hosts not closely related. The human morbillivirus is measles.

To report a live or dead whale, dolphin, porpoise or seal call the Outer Banks Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 252-455-9654. Don’t try to push a marine mammal back out to sea. Most strandings occur when a marine mammal is sick or injured.

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