GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - The industry's leading scientist on marine mammal strandings is concerned about the deaths of baby dolphins.
Four baby dolphin cadavers have washed ashore on Alabama's Dauphin Island. Dr. Ruth Carmichael is a scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, she says that many dead babies on their shores is extremely unusua. "Well you would normally see some deaths but that a large number this early in the season, and it's about four times what we'd expect," Carmichael said.
Blair Mase, NOAA's marine mammal stranding coordinator for the Southeast region, confirmed that the number of baby dolphin deaths is high. She said the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies reports all its findings to her.
So far this calving season, 17 infant dolphins have either been stillborn or died shortly after birth. "We're definitely keeping a close eye on this situation," Mase told The Sun Herald. "We're comparing this to previous years, trying to find out what's going on here." She said this is the time of the year that she sees death in young dolphins, because it is the beginning of the birthing season. But really, the normal birthing season is a little later in the year, she said. "We're trying to determine if we do in fact have still births," she said.
There are more in Mississippi than in Alabama and Louisiana. "With the oil spill, it is difficult," she said. "We're trying to determine what's causing this. It could be infectious related. Or it could be non-infection. We run the gamut of causes," she said, including human impact, which would include the oil spill; infectious disease and bio-toxins.
The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport has been conducting necropsies on the baby dolphins and sharing the findings with Mase. The young dolphins have been collected on the coasts of the states in the past two weeks, both on the barrier islands and mainland beaches. This is the first birthing season for dolphins since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; however, IMMS director Moby Solangi said it's too early to tell why they died. "For some reason, they've started aborting or they were dead before they were born," Solangi said. "The average is one or two a month. This year we have 17 and February isn't even over yet." It's the most that Solangi has seen in the two states and he's been watching the Gulf for 30 years, recording dolphin data in Mississippi for 20. The institute has collected 13 infant dolphins in the last two weeks and three more on Monday along the Gulfport and Horn Island beaches.
Bill Walker, head of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources said his teams will work with the institute to collect the bodies of infant dolphins on Horn Island. "Something is amiss," Walker said Monday. "It could be oil-related. Who knows? Some of these mothers were probably exposed
to oil. Whether it rendered them unable to carry their calves, we just don't know."
When a dolphin is born, its mother has the job of making sure it gets to the surface for its first breath of air. If the baby is dead, the mother still tries. Over and over, sometimes for hours. She stays with the baby, not realizing fully that it is dead. She will hit it with her tail, grasp it, pull it and nudge it gently, hoping to get it to breathe. "The more desperate the animal gets when the calf is not breathing, the more intense her behavior becomes," Solangi said. "I've watched it." She goes into a frenzy trying to get the baby to respond and then stays with her dead infant, sometimes for hours before she lets it go. That's why some of the dead dolphin infants identified in the last two weeks have trauma to their bodies, he said.
"They didn't die by being hit," Solangi said.
The institute performed necropsies, animal autopsies, on two of them Monday and have data collected from the other bodies in the past two weeks. Solangi called the high number of deaths an anomaly and told the Sun Herald that it is significant, especially in light of the BP oil spill throughout the spring and summer last year when millions of barrels of crude oil containing toxins and carcinogens spewed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil worked its way into the Mississippi and Chandeleur sounds and other bays and shallow waters where dolphins breed and give birth.
Dolphins breed in the spring and carry their young for 11 to 12 months, Solangi said. Typically in January and February, there are one or two baby
dolphins per month found dead in Mississippi and Alabama, then the birthing season goes into full swing in March. Deaths for the adult dolphin population in the area rose in the year of the oil spill from a norm of about 30 to 89, Solangi said. Solangi is gathering tissue and organs for a thorough forensic study of the deaths and is cautious about drawing conclusions until the data from the research is in, probably within a couple of
weeks. No trend has emerged from the autopsies. "But this is more than just a coincidence," he said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)