Were Multiple Stressors a ‘Perfect Storm’ for Northern Gulf of Mexico Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in 2011?

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Plos One; Public Library of Science


An unusual number of near term and neonatal bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) mortalities occurred in the northern Gulf of Mexico (nGOM) in 2011, during the first calving season after two well documented environmental perturbations; sustained cold weather in 2010 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (DWHOS). Preceding the stranding event, large volumes of cold freshwater entered the nGOM due to unusually large snowmelt on the adjacent watershed, providing a third potential stressor. We consider the possibility that this extreme cold and freshwater event contributed to the pattern of perinatal dolphin strandings along the nGOM coast. During the 4-month period starting January 2011, 186 bottlenose dolphins, including 46% perinatal calves (nearly double the percentage for the same time period from 2003–2010) washed ashore from Louisiana to western Florida. Comparison of the frequency distribution of strandings to flow rates and water temperature at a monitoring buoy outside Mobile Bay, Alabama (the 4th largest freshwater drainage in the U.S.) and along the nGOM coast showed that dolphin strandings peaked in Julian weeks 5, 8, and 12 (February and March), following water temperature minima by 2–3 weeks. If dolphin condition was already poor due to depleted food resources, bacterial infection, or other factors, it is plausible that the spring freshet contributed to the timing and location of the unique stranding event in early 2011. These data provide strong observational evidence to assess links between the timing of the DWHOS, other local environmental stressors, and mortality of a top local predator. Targeted analyses of tissues from stranded dolphins will be essential to define a cause of death, and our findings highlight the importance of considering environmental data along with biological samples to interpret stranding patterns during and after an unusual mortality event.



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