Dolphin Deaths Alarm Scientists

The animals are washing ashore at a higher rate than the last 26 years. Host Scott Simon speaks with Charley Potter, collection manager for marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, about the response along the Mid-Atlantic.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Dolphins are washing ashore in alarming numbers in the Mid-Atlantic states this summer. More than 160 deaths of dolphins have been reported since early July and that's the worst fate in 26 years. Response teams from New York to Virginia are trying to determine just what's killing all these dolphins. Charlie Potter is working with one of those teams at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.

He's the marine mammal collections manager at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and joins us in our studios. Charlie, thanks for being with us.

CHARLIE POTTER: Glad to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And help us understand how alarming this spike is.

POTTER: We're seeing all age classes, both males and females and the event seems to have two centers of concentration, one in New Jersey and the other in Virginia.

SIMON: I understand this is early into the investigation but do you have any inkling of what might be responsible?

POTTER: Well, in 1987 was sort of the first time we were ever faced with one of these kind of events. And at that time, we had no idea where to look. Since then, we do have some potential suspects. One of those is the morbillivirus and that was the causative agent, we feel, in the 1987 event. And that has been found in some of the animals to date.

SIMON: What is the morbillivirus?

POTTER: Morbilli is a group or family of viruses and it includes things such as measles and distemper. So that one of the big questions are facing us right now is the extent of this infection and whether or not the infection is something that's always been there and what we're just picking up because of increased surveillance, or is this perhaps the smoking gun that we've been looking for?

SIMON: Is there something you can do?

POTTER: Right now, quite frankly, all we can do is respond to the animals as they come ashore. And in that regard, it's really critical that as soon as anybody sees an animal that appears to be acting abnormally or in distress or if they find an animal on the shore, that they contact the appropriate authorities as soon as possible.

SIMON: You're a man who's made a career with dolphins, if you please. This must hurt you personally.

POTTER: When somebody reports that there's a very fresh carcass on the beach and we get word that it's being brought into the lab, the adrenaline picks up because that's the animal that hopefully will unlock this riddle, and then we plunge into our automatic mode and we start conducting the investigation on that animal.

But, you know, in the evening when you sit back and think about it, it does stick with you. Unfortunately, a number of the animals we've looked at have been neonates, that is infants. And as a father, that's always hard to do.

SIMON: Yeah. Charlie Potter is marine mammal collection manager at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Thanks so much for being with us.

POTTER: Oh, thank you for having me.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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