Area researchers brace for terminal dolphin virus

Published: Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 06:01 PM.

A dolphin plague could reach Southeastern North Carolina waters.

“We hoped it would run its course in these very localized populations in the Chesapeake Bay, but it didn’t, and that’s not a good sign,” said Bill McLellan, coordinator for the state’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program and a research biologist with the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “We’re just kind of holding on to see if it comes. All animals south of Cape Hatteras are now suspect.”

From July 1 to Aug. 28, at least 333 bottlenose dolphins washed ashore along the East Coast. More than 30 of those surfaced in North Carolina, all north of Cape Hatteras. The deaths are attributed to a resurgence of morbillivirus, a measles-like illness that killed 50 percent of the Atlantic dolphin population in a similar outbreak in 1987.

McLellan, then working at the Smithsonian, was one of the primary investigators on the 1987 outbreak in Virginia. Researchers in the state stranding network noticed a sizable uptick in dolphin mortalities that summer and were particularly concerned by the number of live mammals stranded on the shore.

“Live bottlenose dolphins are really a rare occurrence for us,” McLellan said. “They’re alive on the beach or in the sound or on a sandbar, not just swimming around. These coastal bottlenose dolphins, I don’t think it’s in their makeup to do that. That gave a different significance to this right away.”

And now it’s happening again. About two weeks ago, stranding coordinators in the Outer Banks began noticing an increase in beached dolphins, once more with a fair amount of live mammals lying on the sand.



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