Marine epidemic claims hundreds of dolphins


A deadly virus has claimed more than 700 bottlenose dolphins on the east coast since July. 

Lindsey Marie Hogan | Contributing Writer

A virus that is infecting bottlenose dolphins has reached the waters off the North Carolina coast, offering the UNC Wilmington biology and marine biology departments a hands-on learning experience.

The morbillivirus has infected and killed over 700 bottlenose dolphins along the east coast since mid-July.

The outbreak started in the northern part of the mid-Atlantic and spread south to New England, then North Carolina, Georgia, and now Florida. The last outbreak of the virus occurred from 1987 to 1988. Morbillivirus affects dolphins’ respiratory, immune and central nervous systems. As a result, the animals either die from the disease or their immune systems become compromised and they die from secondary diseases.

“We’ve had just way, way, way too many Bottlenose dolphins dying,” said Ann Pabst, UNCW professor and Marine Mammal Stranding Program co-director.

The Marine Mammal Stranding Program is embedded into UNCW’s biology and marine biology departments and is co-directed by Anne Pabst and Will McLellan, North Carolina’s state stranding coordinator.

During a typical year, there are between 125 and 200 marine mammal strandings in North Carolina. Since the morbillivirus epizootic, or epidemic in non-human animals, there have been approximately 90 dolphins stranded in North Carolina since the middle of August. A stranding refers to a beached marine mammal, dead or living. Currently, the disease affects two stocks of dolphins.

All marine mammals are federally protected, so UNCW holds a stranding agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that allows them to legally respond to marine mammal strandings.

The program currently has about 75 UNCW student volunteers in addition to citizen volunteers, who attend monthly meetings where the biology of marine mammals, legal procedures and current stranding events are discussed. The program also provides training and exposes volunteers to one or two necropsies each semester. Honors, undergraduate, masters and doctorate students are all involved in laboratory research concerning the strandings.

“These are sad things, but more dolphins are washing up than would normally be washing up, but it is a learning experience,” said UNCW senior Stephanie Phillips.

Phillips said she enjoys the hands-on experience she’s gotten as part of the program.

“Instead of sitting in a classroom listening to someone talk, we’re actually going in on the necropsy and actually doing things. That’s how I learn, by doing things with my hands and hands-on experience,” Phillips said.

Alex Mancini, also a UNCW senior, said she appreciated listening to professionals explain the morbillivirus and what was learned from the last outbreak in the ’80s. As a result, Pabst said scientists know much more about dolphins but not about morbillivirus.

“We don’t know why it’s happening. We don’t know what the trigger was. I wish we did and I wish we could do something about it,” Pabst said. “There are lots and lots of people who are studying this event right now as well as responding to it, so, hopefully, we’ll learn as much as we did from the last one, but perhaps this time about the disease.”

To report a stranded marine mammal call 910-962-7266 or your local municipality.