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Questions Remain in Unexplained Mass Dolphin Death in Florida

It was a really depressing year for mass marine animal deaths. For some reason, 2017 saw several strandings and beachings of whales and dolphins around the globe. NASA has been analyzing space weather data to determine if disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field might be to blame given other recent strange side effects of solar weather, but so far the cause of these strandings remains elusive. According to a recent report, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been researching a particularly deadly 2017 stranding in Florida, and so far their research has only led to more questions.

The cause of the stranding remains a mystery. Will we ever truly understand the natural world, though?

The cause of the stranding remains a mystery. Will we ever truly understand the natural world, though?

This year’s deadliest dolphin stranding occurred in Hog Key along the edge of Everglades National park on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. The incident was one of the worst known strandings for the particular species and the deadliest in the southeastern United States. Of the 100 dolphins which became stranded in the shallow waters of the key, only twenty survived. Ten had to be euthanized, and thirteen more were unable to be found due to the fact that marine biologists had difficulty reaching the site during and following the stranding, making data sample collection difficult. Still, analysis has already revealed that neither sonar testing at Key West nor U.S. Navy seismic exercises off the coast of Cuba could have been the cause. That’s the story anyway.

Still, those sound pretty fishy if you ask me.

Still, those sound pretty fishy if you ask me. Or, mammal-y.

The animals all had empty stomachs and intestines, which would be expected if the animals had spent significant time in shallow waters, unusual for this species. NOAA scientists are now attempting to determine if some unknown biotoxin or virus could have led these dolphins to swim to their graves, but that testing is made difficult by the small numbers of samples scientists were able to collect. According to NOAA data, toxic algal blooms have been increasingly cited as a cause of the 64 known “unusual mortality events” involving marine mammals since 1991. Could some unknown neurotoxin be blooming on ocean surfaces?

Toxic algal blooms: one of nature's cruelest jokes.

Toxic algal blooms: one of nature’s cruelest jokes.

For their part, NASA space weather scientists believe “geomagnetic conditions may be part of a cocktail of contributing factors” which are leading marine mammals to beach or strand themselves. Human activity, after all, was found to be the cause of half of the strandings for which causes could be found, and several recent events have introduced high levels of radiation into ocean waters. Should we be worried? Or, rather, how worried should we be? If these incidents are the first ill tidings of some oncoming mass extinction event, will we be able to heed the warnings of the natural world before it’s too late? Or, perhaps it already is. Happy New Year, everyone! Make sure to discard as many one-time-use plastic champagne glasses as possible when the clock strikes midnight. Those dolphins love ’em.