Doug Mouton / Northshore Bureau Chief
NEW ORLEANS -- Why are baby dolphins washing up dead along the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coasts?
Scientists are working to answer that question as they continue to remove dolphin carcasses from public beaches.
The 43rd dead dolphin since the start of the year washed up Monday in Gulfport.
Later Monday, the 44th dead dolphin appeared on the beach in Pass Christian.
In a normal year, one or two dolphins will wash up dead, according to Dr. Moby Solangi, the executive director of the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.
"The concerning fact is that the ones that we're seeing on the beaches are either stillborn or premature or only survived a few days after they were born," Solangi said.
36 of the 44 dolphins are baby dolphins.
And with everything that lives in the Gulf of Mexico, the only species affected by whatever it is that's killing dolphins, are dolphins. Specifically, baby dolphins.
"We are only seeing one age class of animals," Solangi added. "We're not seeing any turtles or fish or birds, and it is only happening to a single group of animals, and it is animals that were pregnant. I think, at the end of the day, we will see some common factors, but right now, we can't really put our finger on it."
A team from the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies collected various samples from the baby dolphin. They carefully bagged pieces of skin, blubber, and whatever organs they could.
"We see these animals out, swimming in the water like everybody else, and they're very special animals," said Institute of Marine Mammal Studies Research Assistant Megan Broadway. "So, when you see this many dead baby dolphins, especially wash up at once, it's kind of concerning and we really want to find out what's wrong."
Their mission, they said, is to collect as many samples as possible for a wide variety of tests, many of which will have to be shipped to out of state laboratories.
As research assistants bagged samples, a vacationing family from Minnesota walked by on the beach.
"It's very disturbing I would have to say," said Nicole Wiberg, of Bigfork, Minnesota. "I didn't know that baby dolphins would wash up on the beach like this, and hearing the numbers this year, it's pretty sad."
Doctors at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies performed a necropsy on one dolphin Monday afternoon in Gulfport. The ultimate goal is to piece together the puzzle and find the answers to what is killing baby dolphins.
Dolphins become pregnant between March and May and give birth 12 months later.
According to Solangi, many of the dolphins coming up dead are either stillborn or were born prematurely.
"Usually in a stranding, there's a mixture of dead animals - adults, males, females, young ones," Solangi said. "But in this case, a majority of the animals are calves, so that shows that there is some common factor that may be influencing them."
The question is - what is that common factor? The only major environmental factor since last spring is the BP Oil Spill.
The deaths of the dolphins could be related to oil or dispersants, but until he sees hard evidence, Solangi won't speculate.
The pregnant dolphins could have swam through or ingested oil or dispersants, or they could have eaten something which had come in contact with oil or dispersants.
But according to Solangi, the answer could also be infectious disease or some cyclical change, and he said, it could take two months or longer before they get enough test results back to piece together the answer.
The concern along the Gulf Coast - how many more dolphins will wash up dead before then?