After a sad summer of mysterious dolphin deaths scientists think they have finally figured out the cause for the deaths of hundreds of the beloved mammal: Measles. It's not confirmed, but the "tentative" cause of the "unusual mortality event" is the cetacean morbillivirus, a virus similar to measles, NOAA told AFP Tuesday afternoon. "Many dolphins have presented with lesions on their skin, mouth, joints, or lungs," NOAA added in an incredibly disconcerting statement. So far, of the 33 dolphins tested, 32 have been confirmed or suspected to have the virus and more than 300 bottle-nosed dolphins have washed up on the shores of the east coast.
Perry Habecker, staff veterinary chief at the University of Pennsylvania told NBC News that outbreaks have "always been happening in cycles": Similar mass-die offs occurred off the East Coast in 1987-89 and in the Gulf of Mexico in 1992 and 1994. But the dolphin experts who initially suspected that climate change was to blame might be onto something. Exposures to toxins can lower the immune systems of the mammals, Gregory Bossart, a dolphin expert at the Georgia Aquarium told NPR in 2011. After the BP oil spill, dozens of baby dolphins washed up dead. "Dolphins can be very good sentinels for what's happening in our oceans and even what's happening in our bodies," he added.
There might be one small shred of encouraging news: Scientists have come up with a vaccine for dolphin measles in 2007. Researchers who created it admit administering the vaccine "presents considerable challenges" for animals not in zoos or enclosed places: Immunizing wild animals roaming the ocean would take a lot of wrangling. But at least it's something.