Alarming number of dead dolphins being studied

By Steve Phillips - bio | email

HORN ISLAND, MS (WLOX) - A research team from the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies found four more dead baby dolphins on Horn Island on Tuesday.

Since the first of the year, some 21 young dolphins have washed ashore on the barrier island and mainland beaches of Mississippi and Alabama. That's an alarming increase, since in a typical year only one or two dead dolphins a month are reported.

It's too early to link the deaths to the BP oil spill, but that's one factor scientists are considering.

It didn't take long for the research team to locate the first of four dead dolphins on Horn Island. The first one was along the south shore, near the middle of the barrier island.

Team members went to work quickly, recording measurements and other statistics, then taking tissue samples; including slices of the dolphin's blubber or fat layer.

"Because a lot of chemicals and heavy metals can become trapped in that layer. So, that's a good indicator of what they've been exposed to in their life," said research assistant Megan Broadway.

Time is critical in responding to these strandings. With the weather warming up, decomposition of the animals is hastened.

"The more decomposed it is, the less samples we can get. So we try and get to them as quick as possible when we find out about them so we can get more samples. And the more samples we have, the more we can find out about them," said team member Jamie Klaus.

Rhiannon Blake from Australia is a member of the research team. She studied zoology in college and was attracted to marine sciences. The young researcher is hopeful this field work will help scientists answer the question of why these dolphins are dying.

"It's kind of depressing seeing all the babies on the beach. But hopefully we're doing something about it with all the work we're doing and all the trips out here," said Blake.

A possible link with last year's BP oil spill is just one factor scientists are studying. The head of the IMMS says the alarming numbers could be traced to any number of causes.

"I think it could be the environment. The cold weather. It could be their fisheries. Some changes in their food habits. It could be a cyclical change. Who knows? But we're going to do a forensics study. We're doing the necropsies, the pathology, the toxicology. And try to get to the bottom of it," said Dr. Moby Solangi.

IMMS is working with the Department of Marine Resources to try and find an answer to the dolphin deaths.

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