22 February 2011

Infant dolphins dying in unexpected numbers, is the oil spill to blame?

It's been almost a year since the April 20th BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After the initial shock, and once the headlines started dropping out of the daily news, most of us probably just went back to our normal lives. Unfortunately for the wildlife living in the oil contaminated waters, life can't just go back to normal. Long term effects of the spill are still yet to be seen, but signs of the damage may be starting to trickle in now.

Down along the coast of Mississippi and Alabama, infant and stillborn dolphins have been washing up on the shore at 10 times their normal rate. Seventeen baby dolphins have been found in total, three of which washed up in Mississippi on Monday, and the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies is trying to find out why.

Moby Solangi, the director of the institute, warns against jumping to any conclusions that the calves' deaths are caused by last year's oil spill, though he will admit that "this is more than just a coincidence.”

The dolphins that live in the Gulf breed and give birth to their young in the shallow waters close to shore. These areas were certainly affected by the oil spill, and as this is the first batch of births since the spill, it remains to be seen what impact that could have on the dolphin population this year. After breeding in the spring, pregnant dolphins carry their young for a full 11 to 12 months, with the typical peak of births hitting in March and April every year. While it is normal for a few calves to be aborted due to complications or to be stillborn, it is disconcerting and alarming that there are already 17 cases of infant mortality just in February.

Solangi and his team have been performing necropsies, or animal autopsies, on the calves but so far have no conclusive data or trends to report. Examination of the organs and tissues gathered from the dolphin babies could take weeks to piece together.

While this news is shocking to some of us, Heidi Whitehead of the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network says the numbers being reported from the Mississippi and Alabama coast would be considered normal numbers for the Texas Coastline. The Texas coastline received a shock in 2007-08 when 50 infant dolphins washed ashore in a span of two weeks! Whitehead reports that the numbers for this year are within the normal range and that as far as they can detect, the deaths were not caused by the oil spill.

All this talk of dead baby dolphins got you depressed now? Not all the babies are perishing! Cajun, a two year old orphaned dolphin from Louisiana has been placed in the care of IMMS.

Solangi and his team have received more than 3 million dollars from Congress to build a facility that can house animals like Cajun and provide a research facility for students and researches strategically located near the home of one of North America's largest dolphin population. Solangi hopes to have part of the facility publicly accessible to spark interest in the marine life in the area. The importance of dolphin research is paramount to understanding the health of the ecosystem in which they live. As Solangi explains, dolphins are the "sentinels of the environment, barometers of the environment.”

What do you think is happening to the dolphins?

Lacey Walker | @quinoaween
Lacey is a food photographing, French speaking, English teaching, travel enthusiast. She's been known to cut a rug. She's also been known to spend all day in bed eating vegan waffles and talking to her cat Hibou. Follow Lacey on her blog and Flickr.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/bodhisurf