JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. (AP) — A disease that has killed hundreds of bottlenose dolphins in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern United States has been confirmed in Georgia, state wildlife officials said Tuesday.
Four dolphins found dead at Wassaw and Jekyll Islands in November have tested positive for dolphin morbillivirus, Department of Natural Resources officials said. The virus is similar to measles and affects the lungs, brain and immune system of marine mammals.
Marine wildlife suffering from morbillivirus may develop skin lesions, brain infections and pneumonia, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The virus, which follows the seasonal migration pattern of dolphins from the upper mid-Atlantic, is spread through inhalation of respiratory particles or direct contact between mammals, according to the NOAA. The virus can also spread through the eyes, mouth, stomach, skin wounds and the urogenital tract.
Department of Natural Resources officials have said they’ve found 23 dead dolphins in Georgia since Nov. 15. The state usually sees 21 dolphins stranded on its shores per year, said state Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Clay George. He added that most dolphin deaths seem to be impacting migratory populations and not resident dolphins. Researchers identify dolphin populations by taking photos of their dorsal fins.
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to stop the disease from spreading,” Clay said. “We can only hope that this is part of the natural cycle, and that populations will rebound to healthy levels soon.”
Outbreaks of morbillivirus killed harbor seals in the northeast in 2006, according to NOAA. Officials say it also killed dolphins in the northeast from 1987-88 and in the Gulf of Mexico in 1992 and 1994.
More than 930 bottlenose dolphins have been found dead or dying on shores stretching from New York to Florida between July 1 and Dec. 1, 2013, according to the NOAA. Officials say the average was about 113 for the same time period between 2007 and 2012.
The virus is not infectious to humans, state wildlife officials said, adding that they’re not surprised by the findings — since dolphins in South Carolina and Florida have also tested positive for the virus.
State wildlife officials say they’re conducting necropsies on some dead dolphins to try understanding how the disease spreads and how it impacts different dolphin populations.