A painful skin disease is killing dolphins worldwide — scientists just found out why
Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast with its Category 5 force in 2005, dolphins who called these coastal waters home have died of a painful skin disease.
Scientists have spent years examining the deceased mammals covered in crusted, pus-filled lesions in hopes of discovering the cause of the disease.
Now, 15 years later, researchers at the Marine Mammal Center in California - the world's largest marine mammal hospital - have worked with colleagues in Australia to find out what causes the devastating disease in coastal dolphins worldwide: climate change.
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Storms like Hurricane Katrina are becoming more frequent and severe as global temperatures rise. These storms pour large amounts of rain over saltwater oceans, slowly turning them into freshwater reservoirs.
Due to the decreased salinity, dolphins develop patchy, raised lesions over their bodies that sometimes cover more than 70% of their skin. This comes from a study published December 15 in the journal Scientific Reports.
Known as ulcerative dermatitis or "freshwater skin disease," the condition sucks dolphins of their vital nutrients and paves the way for organ failure and quick death.
While climate change cannot be fixed overnight, the “breakthrough” discovery can provide scientists with the information they need to diagnose and treat affected dolphins.
"With a record hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico this year and more intense storm systems around the world due to climate change, we can absolutely expect more of these devastating outbreaks to kill dolphins," said study co-author Dr. Pádraig Duignan, chief pathologist at the Marine Mammal Center, said in a press release.
"The results in this paper will enable better attenuation of the factors that lead to disease outbreaks in coastal dolphin communities that are already threatened by habitat loss and degradation," Duignan said.
The deadly skin disease was first discovered in about 40 bottlenose dolphins in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina, the researchers said. The condition looks like circular patches of swollen lesions that sometimes fungi, bacteria, or species of algae settle in, leaving a yellow, green, or orange discoloration on the dolphins' skin.
The dolphins show signs of skin lesions associated with a deadly skin condition known as ulcerative dermatitis, which is related to the increasing frequency and severity of storm systems that drastically reduce the salinity of coastal waters and cause deadly skin diseases in dolphins worldwide.
Since then, outbreaks of the disease have occurred in waters off Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas and Australia where the "rare and threatened" Burrunan dolphin lives.
"The breaks in the skin cause the dolphin to lose vital ions and proteins from its body. When all of this gushes out of them, the fresh water rushes, causing swelling and ulcers," said study leader Nahiid Stephens, a lecturer for Veterinary Pathology at Murdoch University in Australia, said ABC Gippsland.
Stephens said the lesions are equivalent to third-degree burns in humans.
"It kills them because it causes electrolyte imbalances in the dolphins' bloodstream and ultimately leads to organ failure," he told the outlet.
All regions where dolphins are affected share a common trend: drastic decreases in ocean salinity due to more frequent and severe storms caused by global warming.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season produced a record of 30 named storms, beating the 28 in 2005, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Twelve of them landed in the continental US, from Category 1 to Category 4, marking the second highest number of registered hurricanes.
The change in salinity in the oceans can take months, the researchers said, especially after stronger storms, which are predicted to be more common in warmer temperatures.
It also means scientists should expect more outbreaks of the deadly skin disease in dolphin populations, for which the long-term outlook is “poor,” the team said.
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