Until now, the longest UME involving Gul dolphinslasted about 17 months, ater a severe red tide developedo the west coast o Florida in 2005.
Most previous eventsran their course in much shorter time, like the three-month morbillivirus outbreak that hit Texas in 1994, orthe nine-month biotoxin episode that occurred o theFlorida panhandle between 1999 and 2000. Mortalitiescaused by biotoxins or inectious disease oten have asingle, pronounced spike, unless multiple populations areaected in succession. By comparison, the current die-o has persisted or 25 months, with two main spikes andconsiderable fuctuation, never once subsiding to normalrates. To be sure, other events have seen higher rates o strandings over shorter periods o time—a one-monthbiotoxin episode o the panhandle was associated withabout 100 strandings—but none are potentially responsibleor as many deaths. Increased monitoring eorts, such asaerial surveys run by Unied Command, may have improvedreporting during the spill itsel and at the height o the 2011calving season, but is unlikely to account or the very highnumber o strandings seen during those months.
With one exception, a 2007 episode along the east coast o Texas—whose cause was never determined—no prior eventappears to have involved such a large proportion o calves.
The extraordinary number o stillbirths reported since 2010raises serious questions about the nature o the die-o,suggesting that the underlying stressors, whatever they may be, are having an outsized eect on maternal or etal health.
What rOle has the
playeD In the DIe-O?
As oil rom the BP spill spread into bays and estuaries,the Gul’s bottlenose dolphins were among the species o greatest conservation concern. Wild dolphins seem unableto detect sheen and sometimes enter areas that are slickedor moussed with oil,
and overfights and boat surveys o Louisiana reported animals swimming in aected waters.
The most immediate danger or the dolphins was rom oiling and inhaling toxic umes, which can cause brain lesions,disorientation, and death. Yet, only a small proportion o stranded dolphins (less than 15 percent o the total numbersince February 2010) stranded during the spill, meaning thatthe vast majority o known mortalities cannot be attributed tothe immediate, acute eects o exposure.Bottlenose dolphins have an ecology that aggravates theirlong-term risk. Many o the Gul’s dolphins are shallow-water,coastal, or estuarine animals that seem attached to particularareas, which means they may resist abandoning even ahighly degraded habitat. We know that some coastal areas inthe northern Gul were degraded by the BP spill, and whenstorms come, toxics that have accumulated in the bottomsediment could reenter the water column, as has beenobserved decades ater the
Moreover,dolphins eed high on the ood chain, and toxins absorbedthrough sh consumption can bioaccumulate in their tissue.Some toxic compounds ound in oil such as polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons have been shown to cause birthdeects in humans; it is conceivable that they are responsibleor some o the recent stillbirths in dolphins.
The spill could also be a contributing actor in a morecomplicated pathology. Last October, NOAA investigatorsreported that ve o the 21 stranded dolphins they haveanalyzed thus ar had severe brucellosis, a bacterial inectionthat, unlike morbillivirus, is not typically associated with mass dolphin death.
Its occurrence in such a largepercentage o examined animals suggests that some outsideenvironmental stressor was at work. Perhaps, as some o the investigators suggested, the dolphins’ exposure to oil ordispersants compromised their immune response and letthem susceptible to the bacteria.
Or perhaps the impact was indirect. Loss o prey can also undermine the immunesystem and can deplete the energy that mothers need to calveand nourish their babies, resulting in reproductive ailure,lower birth weights, and smaller chances o survival.
Thereexist several plausible mechanisms by which the
may be linked to the die-o, and none are mutually exclusive. All o this makes investigation dicult. Many o ourstandard assays are good at detecting acute toxicity, butnot as capable o picking up the complex compoundso weathered oil.
Gestational problems and otherphysiological impacts related to exposure can be hard todiagnose. And investigators are not helped by the poorcondition that most o the stranded animals’ bodies arein, a state that NOAA classies as “Code 4” decomposition,meaning that tissues and organs are too broken down ormany o the available tests. The act that unusual numberso dolphins were stranding in February 2010 and March 2010suggest that some populations were particularly vulnerable when the spill occurred, and that pre-existing actors may have contributed to some part o the die-o. Yet, the evidence implicating the
is becoming more and more compelling. In August 2011,NOAA began an unusual eort to assess dolphin health inBarataria Bay, Louisiana. In this ormer spill battleground,biologists caught, examined, and released more than 30individual dolphins, taking samples o skin blubber, urine,blood, and other material, and compared the results to arelatively unexposed and well-studied dolphin community o Sarasota, Florida. Their ndings are extremely concerning. While the Sarasota dolphins were generally healthy, many o the animals rom Barataria Bay exhibited signs o whatNOAA described as
: low body weight, low bloodsugar, anemia, immuno-suppression, and disease—results
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