Due to deadly outbreaks that have wiped out a significant portion of the East Coast’s dolphin population, researchers are studying cetacean morbillivirus and finding ways to prevent outbreaks from happening again, according to The Associated Press.

About the virus: Cetacean morbillivirus — a virus spread via the respiratory system — was called “the most significant threat to dolphins and whales on a worldwide scale,” by researcher Kristi West, according to AP.

  • Researchers compared the spread of cetacean morbillivirus to the spread of COVID 19, according to AP.
  • Morbillivirus is “spread through inhalation of respiratory particles or direct contact between animals,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
  • To signify friendship, dolphins approach the surface of the water at the same time to take a breath. During this social encounter, particles of the virus can be exchanged between animals, reported the AP.
  • The virus can also be spread from mother to fetus, according to a study on the disease published in PubMed Central.
  • Dolphins infected with morbillivirus can exhibit symptoms such as skin lesions, brain infections, pneumonia and secondary or latent infections. Infection can also cause the animals to exhibit odd behavior, according to NOAA.
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Previous outbreaks: During a deadly outbreak of the virus between 2013 and 2015, about 1,600 dolphins were “washed ashore on beaches from New York to Florida,” stated the Associated Press.

  • In total, approximately 20,000 dolphins died during the outbreak, reducing the region’s dolphin population by about 50%, AP reported.
  • Another unusual morality event involving bottlenose dolphins occurred between 1987 and 1988, when 79 dolphins were found dead on the coasts between New Jersey, Virginia and Florida. Over half of thee dolphins tested positive for morbillivirus disease, according to the Journal of Wildlife Diseases.
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What role do humans play? “While viruses naturally occur in the wild, human disruption of marine habitats has made animals more vulnerable,” according to AP.

  • Melissa Collier, a biologist studying the dolphins told AP that she hopes policy can be enacted to limit human activity in areas where marine life are more susceptible to viruses.
  • AP states that human disruption can include noise from boat traffic, or human-related runoff pollution.
  • NOAA states that there are no recorded incidents of marine life to human infection of this virus. It is unlikely that humans gave this virus to the animals, and it is unlikely that they can transmit it to humans, via water or consumption of fish.
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