Glenn Burns: Weather may play role in thousands of dolphin deaths

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It's hard not to be happy around the dolphins at the Georgia Aquarium's Marineland attraction near Saint Augustine, Florida. They play, they charm and they show off.
 
Channel 2's Chief Meteorologist Glenn Burns spent time at Marineland with researchers from the Georgia Aquarium, looking into a much grimmer picture offshore.
 
Thousands of dolphins died along the coast from Virginia to Florida from the morbillivirus.  It's unique to dolphins, but acts like measles in humans and distemper in dogs.  It is very contagious.

"No matter where we live on this planet, whether it's Atlanta, Chicago or at Marineland, we're all impacted by what happens in our oceans," said Dr. Greg Bossart, chief veterinary officer and senior vice president at the Georgia Aquarium.

Dolphins are known as sentinels. They're mammals, high on the food chain, social and live near shore.  That means they're good indicators of what humans may face.

Research shows the ocean is becoming more and more unhealthy. Some of it is environmental, some of it man-made, and some of it is because of weather.

Burns explained that last year's hurricane season wasn't very active. One of the reasons why was the Sahara dust. 

Major dust storms were blowing off the west coast of Africa. The dust in the atmosphere was hindering hurricanes from forming. 

Burns questioned whether that Sahara dust was carrying some unknown pathogens across the Atlantic Ocean that affected sea life.

"The weather component to this issue of diseases and emerging disease is very important," Bossart said. "When you bring that much phosphorous from the Sahara over, it has to impact how plants grow."

Bossart and the Georgia Aquarium team are researching all of it -- the morbillivirus, and other diseases like cancer and herpes, showing up in wild dolphins. 

At the Georgia Aquarium's Field Conservation Station near Saint Augustine, they take samples from stranded animals and send them to Atlanta for analysis.

"These animals aren't dying in vain," said Matt Denny, field coordinator at the Conservation Station. "Because of facilities like this, we are able to conduct very thorough postmortem exams and we learn so much from each of these cases.

Denny and George Biedenbach, who is the director of conservation programs at the Field Station, are four years into a project to identify dolphins along 70 square miles of the Florida coast. The team tracks the animals’ movement and their health.

Denny takes pictures of the dolphin's dorsal fin, which is like a fingerprint. The station's database contains pictures of more than 200 fins.

Burns and a Channel 2 Action News producer and photographer went along with them one afternoon. The team spotted several familiar fins, and a pod of at least eight dolphins feeding on a school of mullet. 

Some of the dolphins were calves, just months old. The life expectancy of a dolphin in the wild is 25 years. That's less than half the age of the oldest dolphin in human care -- 61-year-old Nellie. She was born at Marineland and is the oldest dolphin in the world.

Bossart said change is needed now to protect the dolphins in the wild, and the oceans.

"My feeling is it's in our best interest to look at this now, rather than down the road when it may be too late,” Bossart said.


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