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April 6, 2017 – With their sparkling personalities and legendary intelligence, bottlenose dolphins are one of the most beloved of all sea creatures (which accounts for their “dogs of the sea” nickname). But, like all marine animals, the health of dolphins is vulnerable to the effects of pollution, climate change and emerging diseases. Morris Animal Foundation is deeply committed to protecting and improving the health of the world’s dolphins by supporting critical research projects that will help save lives.

In the last decade, the Foundation has funded numerous studies looking at a range of health issues including the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, outbreaks of new viral diseases, and improving diagnostic testing.

An Environmental Disaster Takes Its Toll

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was an ecological disaster, impacting the wildlife, environment and people of the Gulf of Mexico. Morris Animal Foundation’s Betty White Wildlife Rapid Response Fund was activated to support studies by Dr. Randall Wells, from the Chicago Zoological Society, on the spill’s impact on specific populations of bottlenose dolphins. Findings from the study team provided valuable, emergency baseline health data for multiple dolphin studies, including helping to show the negative effects immediately after the spill.

The team recently published their results on long-term effects of the spill, which included persistent lung abnormalities in affected dolphins. As part of their data collection activities, researchers also documented other health concerns in dolphins, including a survey of shark bite scars (35.5 percent of the population had at least one), foraging habits, and the types of bacteria living in their gastrointestinal tracts. 

Viruses a Cause for Increasing Concern

In the last 25 years, morbilliviruses have been linked to massive die-offs of marine mammals, including harbor seals, dolphins and whales. Related to the canine distemper virus, morbilliviruses affect the lungs and brain of infected animals. The infection is spread from animal to animal primarily through inhalation and direct contact between individuals.

Dr. Andrea Bogomolni, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, received a research fellowship from Morris Animal Foundation to study dolphin morbilliviruses in order to understand in greater detail how the virus is spread, why some animals mount a protective immune response and others don’t, and to look for reservoirs of infection. Dr. Bogomolni currently is collecting and analyzing samples. Once finished, her data will provide valuable insights to help manage further outbreaks in dolphins and other marine mammals affected by morbilliviruses.

A Better Way to Diagnose

Dr. Kelsey Seitz, a recent Morris Animal Foundation Veterinary Student Scholar, looked at the use of ultrasound on dolphins. Dolphins can suffer from metabolic syndrome and iron overload, both serious health concerns that can affect the liver. Dr. Seitz wanted to explore the use of ultrasound as a non-invasive diagnostic test for both these disease processes.

Most liver diseases are diagnosed by biopsy. But dolphins are extremely sensitive to anesthetic agents and invasive procedures such as tissue biopsy, making these tests risky. Dr. Seitz established a comprehensive, in-water ultrasound technique to assess the liver and biliary system of dolphins, and applied her system to examine several dolphins, including those with suspected illnesses. She was able to demonstrate ultrasound changes in the liver that correlated with changes in blood glucose, a marker of metabolic syndrome.

Morris Animal Foundation has been committed to helping improve the health of animals for nearly 70 years, including marine mammals such as the bottlenose dolphin. Check out our other wildlife grants, and all our ongoing research projects, and learn more about ways you can join our efforts to help improve the lives of animals around the world.