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Skin Disease Covering 70 Percent Of Dolphin's Body Linked To Climate Change

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Skin Disease Covering 70 Percent Of Dolphin's Body Linked To Climate Change

A skin disease that has been found to cover around 70 percent of a dolphin's body has been linked to climate change.

The mysterious condition, which has been called Fresh Water Skin Disease, has been found to affect bottlenose dolphins, causing them to develop painful lesions which ultimately cover the body and kill them.

Researchers first came across the disease back in 2005, but now believe that it could be caused by decreasing salinity - salt levels - due to sudden increases in fresh water in areas where there are usually high concentrations of salt.

The new study, which has been published in Scientific Reports, has now provided the first case definition for the disease.

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It comes after as number of outbreaks in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Australia.

Credit: Scientific Reports
Credit: Scientific Reports

Researchers at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, who carried out the study, found that in all of the locations listed, there was a sharp drop in the level of salinity in the waters there.

Coastal dolphins are used to changes in salt levels, but they do not live in freshwater.

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And the increasing number of hurricanes and other such storm activity, especially when preceded by a drought, can damage their habitats.

With scientists predicting an increase in weather cycles like this, it's estimated that there will be more outbreaks of the disease among the dolphin population.

In a statement, Pádraig Duignan, chief pathologist at The Marine Mammal Center, said: "This devastating skin disease has been killing dolphins since Hurricane Katrina, and we're pleased to finally define the problem.

"With a record hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico this year and more intense storm systems worldwide due to climate change, we can absolutely expect to see more of these devastating outbreaks killing dolphins."

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Credit: Scientific Reports
Credit: Scientific Reports

The groundbreaking piece of research could have immediate implications for the ongoing outbreak in Australia, which is affecting the Burrunan dolphin in the south-east of the country.

Since September, there have been reports of six dead dolphins in the Gippsland Lakes.

Lead Researcher and Lecturer in Veterinary Pathology at Murdoch University, Nahiid Stephens, told abc.com: "The lesions are equivalent to third-degree burns in humans - an horrific injury that can very rapidly result in death.

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"It kills them because it causes electrolyte disruptions in their [the dolphins] blood stream and they ultimately end up with organ failure."

In the long term, it's hoped the paper will encourage the powers that be to take a stronger approach to climate change.

Mr Duignan added: "As warming ocean temperatures impact marine mammals globally, the findings in this paper will allow better mitigation of the factors that lead disease outbreaks for coastal dolphin communities that are already under threat from habitat loss and degradation.

"This study helps shed light on an ever-growing concern, and we hope it is the first step in mitigating the deadly disease and marshalling the ocean community to further fight climate change."

Featured Image Credit: Scientific Reports

Topics: Science, Dolphins, Animals, Australia, Health

Dominic Smithers
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