The deaths “may very well be exacerbated by human activity,” says Susan Barco, research coordinator and senior scientist at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center Foundation. “We may not be able to completely understand how the scope of the event may be impacted by human activities,” she shrugs with resignation.
Until all the data is pooled it’s hard to pick up trends, says David Rotstein, a veterinary pathologist who studies the dolphin samples from his home in Silver Spring, Md. Moreover, penning the reports that identify the probable cause of death is part science, part art. “It’s like going to a museum, looking at a painting on the wall and someone saying describing that painting. That’s really what we do,” he says. There’s also little data to flesh out the big picture: Scientists do not track the incidence of nonlethal morbillivirus in healthy dolphins, largely because of the logistical challenges and cost of tracking live dolphins.
NOAA has launched an emergency response and investigation, employing the same approach adopted for other federal emergencies like massive wildfires—complete with an incident command system spearheaded by federal personnel who coordinate a response across state lines. Instead of sending helicopters laden with fire retardant, they dictate where dolphin remains should be sent for analysis. NOAA also has set up a researcher loaner program that helps find scientists willing to help out with the deluge of necropsies.
At the local level, Virginia Aquarium personnel have been facing an onslaught of hotline calls reporting dead dolphins that have washed ashore. That’s on top of the normal calls they respond to, which include picking up hurt or dead sea turtles. And each call triggers a flurry of action that sends volunteers to retrieve the animal and bring the injured or deceased back to the Virginia Aquarium Marine Animal Care Center.
Dolphins on the table
The center is a nondescript warehouselike building replete with mats immersed in bleach solution for disinfecting shoes every time anyone exits one area and enters another. One wing features live marine creatures being nursed back to health. In another researchers are spending an increasing amount of time processing data about the deceased dolphins. A white, screened-in tent next to the building is set up for necropsies, but recently the area just outside the tent is often adorned with spillover marine life mortalities, waiting for their turn on the table. Flies swarm inside the tent, providing a buzzing soundtrack. Inside, several researchers, decked out in protective gear including N95 respirator masks, try to ignore the bugs and the pungent smell of decaying marine flesh as they take measurements of dead dolphins and empty the bodies of organs, divvying up the pieces into labeled bags or jars of solution before depositing the remaining bodily parts into a large dumpster outside.
From these necropsies, pathologists map out the probable cause of death by looking at slides from various organs under the microscope, hunting for telltale fused cells that would indicate morbillivirus—akin to sunnyside-up eggs with a bunch of extra yolks. Labs across the country, including one at the University of Georgia in Athens employ genetic analysis to confirm and expand on the pathologists’ findings. “We are strictly testing what we are asked for,” says Jeremiah Saliki, a virologist and director of the Athens lab. So right now no one is teasing apart the constellation of symptoms that could provide more insights, including detecting infections and biotoxins. And that’s a problem because more could be happening than we know with potential lasting consequences for oceans.
It’s not unprecedented for humans to get it wrong when it comes to dolphin mortalities. During the dolphin die-off of 1987–88 scientists fingered brevetoxin, a killer of fish, shellfish and birds related to red tides. But something didn’t add up, because red tide was reportedly absent at the time and that toxin would not explain some of the lesions found on the dolphins. An analysis of their lungs and lymph nodes some six years later found that the real killer had been morbillivirus. Testing techniques have improved since then—increasing the chances that scientists are right this time around—but the investigation is continuously evolving, and revisions in the analysis may be made.