Scientists are concerned about a virus they've recently identified in Fraser's dolphins. Though the disease has already been infecting these animals for a few years, researchers are sounding the alarm that the virus may infect many more species.
Investigators have been examining a Fraser's dolphin that was stranded on a Maui beach in 2018. The research study, which included analysis by transmission electron microscopy and growing the virus in culture, revealed a new strain of morbillivirus, which infects marine mammals. This is the first strain of morbillivirus linked to Fraser's dolphins, which are highly social animals. The findings have been published in Scientific Reports.
Scientists have previously identified six new strains of morbillivirus in dolphins. Several were linked to unusual mortality events, with at least 50 dolphins perishing in Australia, while over 200 dolphins died in Brazilian waters. Sporadic deaths have also occurred in other areas. Scientists still have to determine how vulnerable Fraser's dolphins and other species may be to this virus.
Morbillivirus is related to the human viruses that cause measles and smallpox. Different strains have already caused outbreaks and deaths among other species of dolphins and whales around the world. It's thought that less than five percent of the dolphins and whales that die in the waters of Hawaii are recovered by the University of Hawai'i's Health and Stranding Lab, so there may be many more animals that are infected.
The study authors are encouraging other researchers and wildlife officials to be aware of the possibility of a morbillivirus outbreak in the dolphins and whales that spend time around Hawaiʻi. Antibody testing may provide some insight into whether Fraser's dolphins are under threat from this virus, or how extensive it may be in marine animals at this time.
The researchers are encouraging people that live in Hawai'i to report any sightings of marine mammals that may be in distress or deceased to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Wildlife Hotline at 1(888) 256-9840.
NOAA is now trying to vaccinate Hawaiian monk seals against morbillivirus. Monk seals are endangered, and the vaccination effort is attempting to create herd immunity in their communities.