Why Are Dolphins Dying on the U.S. East Coast?

The mysterious mass deaths of dolphins along the U.S. East Coast has so far left scientists puzzled. According to CNN, by late August 2013 authorities had recorded 228 fatalities, with the bodies of the intelligent marine mammals being found on shores from New York to Virginia. The epidemic has alarmed the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has declared the deaths an “Unusual Mortality Event.”

One potential cause is suspected to be the fatal morbillivirus. A previous outbreak of the morbillivirus caused the death of around 900 bottlenose dolphins throughout the East Coast in 1987 and 1988, heavily damaging the local population. This virus is said to have been found in samples taken from several deceased dolphins found this year, although it’s still somewhat premature to say that it is the definite source of this latest epidemic.

NOAA itself has announced: “Based on the rapid increase in strandings over the last two weeks and the geographic extent of these mortalities, an infectious pathogen is at the top of the list of potential causes for this UME, but all potential causes of these mortalities will be evaluated.” Other suspects include different diseases or pathogens as a result of viruses or bacteria, biotoxins from algae blooms, and pollution or chemicals. Testing on the animals’ bodies, however, is still underway.

Determining the cause of the dolphins’ deaths is important not only to help prevent such things in the future, but also may help pinpoint if there is something darker going on in our seas. Trevor Spradlin, a marine mammal biologist for the NOAA, told National Geographic: “Marine mammals are like the canary in the coal mine. Our first mandate is to protect the dolphins, but the underlying bigger picture is if things are hurting these animals, [they] could also be hurting people as well.” All those dead dolphins might be a signal that something wrong is going on with our waters.