Menus Subscribe Search

Our Best Friends

dolphins

(Photo: Hunter-Desportes/Flickr)

Dolphins Are Dying and No One Knows Why

• January 09, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Hunter-Desportes/Flickr)

If an Unusual Mortality Event sounds like something out of a movie, it’s not. There’s one happening right now.

Unusual Mortality Event sounds like something out of a Roland Emmerich movie. A downtrodden, bespectacled scientist discovers it after an alarm beeps in the dank dungeon lair that doubles as his office. As he attempts to discern the cause of the noise, he knocks over a wobbly stack of papers, piled high because he has neither the time nor the will to file them. He locates the alarm, realizing the severity of the Unusual Mortality Event, only to be interrupted by a phone call. It’s his ex-wife. “[Generic sounding scientist name], you forgot about [Sam/Ben/Dana]” she says, wearily. “You remember, our child….” He cuts her off. “I have to go, honey,” he says, that last word indicating that he still pines for her and maybe, just maybe there’s a chance to redeem their relationship. “We’re facing an unprecedented Unusual Mortality Event,” he continues dramatically, both for her benefit and, conveniently, for the benefit of the viewing audience that’s beginning to wonder whether it was worth paying an extra five dollars to see this film in the RPX theater, especially since there has been far more family drama than stuff blowing up, which is why they shelled out more money in the first place.

At this point, our heroic but overlooked scientist brings his concerns about the Unusual Mortality Event—now shortened to “UME” because this thing has a run time of 99 minutes, tops, and there’s a huge special-effects budget left to blow through—to a mid-level official in the executive branch. His pleas are ignored at first but eventually accepted. Things die. Sam/Ben/Dana is in grave peril, then suddenly saved. The future of humanity goes right to the brink before getting pulled back. We all live happily ever after.

Except Unusual Mortality Events—which are unexpected, involve significant deaths, and require immediate action—don’t come from movies. They are real. Very real. And one of them is taking place with tragic results in the Atlantic Ocean right now.

IN JULY, BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS started washing up dead on the shores of New Jersey beaches. This continued throughout the late summer, fall, and winter—the only change being that the location of the mammal carcasses shifted south to Florida as the ocean warmed. Between July 1 and December 15, 996 dolphins were “stranded,” which is marine-biology speak for a much darker reality. Compare that figure to the 117 average during the same period between 2007 and 2012, and, well, we have an Unusual Mortality Event that continues today.

This isn’t the first one. Between June 1987 and May of 1988, more than 700 bottlenose dolphins died in the Mid-Atlantic. It’s estimated that the figure represented roughly half of the Mid-Atlantic population. When it was discovered, no one knew the cause. But marine biologists kept samples of tissue from the deceased animals and later discovered that cetacean morbillivirus killed the dolphins. The disease, which is in the same genus as measles, only affects dolphins, whales, and porpoises.

While humans cannot contract morbillivirus, the plight of the dolphins might signify a concern about the health of the oceans.

Morbillivirus is also to blame for the recent deaths. It’s one of the first things scientists test for now that they know it exists. (A 1990 die off and another in 1994 in the Gulf of Mexico have been attributed to morbillivirus, too.) In August, biologists determined that morbillivirus was the cause of the latest Mid-Atlantic UME.

What no one knows: why now? Morbillivirus is endemic to the dolphin environment. It’s always floating around, waiting to be passed through the air via exhalation from a dolphin’s blowhole. So why are they dying off in 2013?

One theory, according to Erin Fougeres, a marine biologist with NOAA Fisheries, is that outbreaks are cyclical. “Those bottlenose dolphins that don’t die develop natural antibodies,” she told me over the phone. “As those animals slowly die out of the population, herd immunity drops which can lead to an outbreak. That’s what we think it’s happening.” Essentially, the dolphins that survived in the late 1980s were immune, but there are enough younger, non-immune dolphins today to spark an epidemic.

The other theory is scarier: that we’ve done something terrible to the ocean and the die-off is the first sign of something larger. “Marine mammals are very good sentinels for ocean and human health, and they really act like the proverbial canaries in a coal mine,” Dr. Greg Bossart, a veterinary pathologist and senior vice president in charge of animal health at the Georgia Aquarium, told The New York Times in December. “They give us an idea of what’s occurring in the environment.”

I asked Fougeres if she agreed with the canary-in-a-coal mine metaphor when it came to the bottlenose dolphins. She said she did. While humans cannot contract morbillivirus, the plight of the dolphins might signify a concern about the health of the oceans.

“We will continue to look and see if there are any underlying causes that might make them more susceptible to the virus this year versus other years,” she said. “Something like global warming might make a species interact with another one this year. These are theories.”

We’ll have a better idea in the spring. So far, the outbreak is following the same pattern it did in 1987 and 1988: start up north, then move south. Fougeres and the NOAA team believe the location where they find stranded dolphins will begin moving back up north after the winter. The die-off should stop in May. That’s the hope, at least.

But no one knows. There was an unrelated UME in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, an area affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All the deaths aren’t linked but, as the NOAA marine biologist told the Times, “it says there are a lot of challenges that marine mammals are facing.”

While none of this sounds good, it—admittedly—would make a rather dull action movie. But it might make a good horror flick.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

More From Noah Davis

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.