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Spike Reported in Number of Stillborn Dolphins on Coast

by Karen Nelson

GULFPORT -- Baby dolphins, some barely three feet in length, are washing up along the Mississippi and Alabama shorelines at about 10 times the normal number for the first two months of the year, researchers are finding.

Institute for Marine Mammal Studies research intern Rhiannon Blake takes tissue and organ samples from a male baby dolphin discovered on the beach in Gulfport, Miss., on Monday, February 21, 2011. (JAMES EDWARD BATES/SUN HERALD) Seventeen young dolphins, either aborted before they reached maturity or dead soon after birth, 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, Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, 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.”

Early in the season

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.

Another coast

Heidi Whitehead, state coordinator for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network said numbers like the ones in Mississippi and Alabama would be considered normal for the Texas coast.

In 2007 or 2008, she said, they had an “unusual mortality event” when as many as 50 neonates washed ashore in two weeks. Some were ill and some were abandoned stillborn, but many were too decomposed to find the cause of death.

Whitehead said that in Texas now, no deaths, as far as they could detect, have been related to the oil spill this year and the numbers of deaths have been well within the normal range.

Renee Schoof, environment and energy writer with McClatchy Newspapers Washington Bureau, contributed to this report.

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