A strain that has never been seen before in a dolphin virus in Hawaii has been identified, and scientists fear it could spread to marine mammals. According to a report published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, scientists at the University of Hawaii at the Mānoa Health and Strength Lab performed an autopsy on a Fraser dolphin that was found in Maui in 2018.
The dolphin was a young male who looked relatively healthy from the first impression but showed signs of infection in many of its tissues. From its tissues, researchers have been able to isolate a fancy morbillivirus that was not previously documented. Lead study author and associate researcher at UH Mānoa’s Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology said in a statement, “Fraser’s Dolphin 2018 Strand reveals that we have a novel and very different species of morbillivirus here in Hawaiian waters that we didn’t know before.”
Morbillivirus is a broad species of virus that causes measles in humans, fungi in dogs and cats, and rinderpest in cattle. Cetacean morbillivirus – which cannot infect humans – has previously been identified among dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals around the world and is known to wreak havoc on populations.
In 2013, two morbillivirus species were found in dolphins in the South Pacific, killing at least 50 dolphins in Western Australia and more than 200 in Brazil. The novel cetacean morbillivirus has so far only been found in one dolphin, but researchers have explained that they recover less than 5% of cetaceans that die in Hawaiian waters, leaving the extent of the problem unclear.
The discovery of a fancy morbillivirus in Fraser’s dolphin is particularly worrying because it is a pelican species that migrate between the Open Ocean and coastal systems. Fraser dolphins are a highly social species that interacts closely with other populations of cetaceans.
The risk of the virus spreading in and out of the Mid-Pacific region, therefore, is a worrying possibility. If this becomes a reality, it will not only be a mass death on the card, we may even see some species pushed toward extinction. “It’s also significant for us in Hawaii because we have many more species of dolphins and whales – about 20 species that call Hawaii home – which could also be at risk for an outbreak of this virus,” West explained.