Large numbers of bottlenose dolphin carcasses are washing up on shore along the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama leading scientists and researches scrambling to find out why. Since Jan. 1, an abnormally high number of stillborn and infant bottlenose dolphins have washed up on shore. That number could soon beat out the 89 total from all of last year. Additionally, adult dolphin carcasses have been found as well, with only one being a different species. In this past week alone, 24 baby dolphins have been found and now the total count is 67.
As of now, scientists are questioning whether or not the high number of dolphin deaths is linked to cold weather or disease. However, they have not yet ruled out the possible link to the BP oil spill last year. Tissue samples from each carcass are being studied and several of the bodies are undergoing full necropsies to determine the cause for their death. Although none of the bodies had obvious signs of oil toxicity, scientists are sure in-depth studies of the tissue samples could reveal whether or not abnormally high levels of chemicals were present in the dolphin's body before it died.
For bottlenose dolphins living in the Gulf, this time of year is calving season. Roughly 2,000 to 5,000 dolphins live in the Gulf region and with the current death total, the number of dolphin carcasses found on shore is now ten times higher than normal.
The carcasses were discovered by park rangers, beach-goers and even BP cleanup crews. The deceased dolphins varied in age and some of the bodies found were barely 3 feet long, indicating that they possibly died soon after being birthed or were born stillborn after dying in the mother's womb before reaching maturity.
Although the cause of the dolphin deaths is still in question, scientists still believe the answer may be within the BP oil spill. On Feb. 20, a prominent marine scientist, Samantha Joye, presented the results from a study she conducted on the Gulf ocean floor. Her research revealed oil from the spill is suffocating aquatic life with 4-inch layers of thick oil and microorganisms are not consuming the excess oil as quickly as they were expected to. What many scientists do agree on is that it may take years, even a decade, to see just whatkind of long-term effect the BP oil spill has on marine life. Even if the dolphin deaths can be attributed to the oil, it's likely that the oil could affect bottlenose dolphins and increase the number of deaths in the Gulf for years to come, especially within the upcoming months as new dolphin carcasses are discovered on Mississippi and every week.
Rachel Krech provides an in-depth look at current environmental issues and local Chicago news stories. As a college student from the Chicago suburbs pursuing two science degrees, she applies her knowledge and passion to both topics to garner further public awareness.