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Marine virus confirmed in state
With four confirmed cases of a deadly marine mammal virus, Georgia has been added to a list of East Coast states experiencing what scientists refer to as an unusual mortality event among bottlenose dolphins.

The disease, morbillivirus, which is similar to measles and affects the lungs, brain and immune systems of dolphins, is believed to have been responsible for more than 930 bottlenose dolphins being found dead on shores from New York to Florida since July.

But until four dolphins that washed ashore on Jekyll and Wassaw islands in November tested positive for the virus, Georgia's coast had not had a confirmed case.

Clay George, state Department of Natural Resources biologist and head of the agency's marine mammal program, said Monday that two more dolphins, one found on Jekyll Island and the other on Cumberland Island, showed that they may also be positive for morbillivirus.

Although the virus has only recently been detected in dolphins found dead on Georgia's coast, it is likely responsible for the significant increase in the number of dolphin strandings the past two months, George said.

"It seems like it is here," he said of the virus. "We've had over double (the strandings) of what we have in a normal year."

This year, 56 dead dolphins have been documented in Georgia, 28 of those have occurred since Nov. 15, George said. The annual average is about 21, he added.

Of the 28 strandings reported since Nov. 15, eight were in Glynn County and 12 were in Camden County.

While only a few cases of morbillivirus have been confirmed, George said there are likely many more.

"Most carcasses are too decomposed to sample for (morbillivirus) testing, so additional animals have likely died from it as well, but we were unable to determine (each case)," George said.

Understanding the pattern of the disease is difficult, but researchers and resource managers like George have a couple of previous outbreaks on which to base predictions.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the virus killed harbor seals in the Northeast in 2006, dolphins in the Northeast in the late 1980s and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1990s.

"If this event is similar to the 1988-1989 morbillivirus outbreak, we may see elevated mortality through early spring. But only time will tell," George said.

He is monitoring each dolphin that is reported and comparing identifying marks on dorsal fins with pictures of dolphins that live in Glynn County's estuaries to determine if the virus is taking a toll on the local population.

Although researchers think most cases have been found in migratory dolphins, local dolphins are still likely to interact with them.

So far, George has not been able tell if the dolphins that died from the virus were from local waters.

Morbillivirus, which can be carried by all marine mammals but does not always show symptoms, was also found in a pygmy sperm whale that beached on Jekyll Island. The virus is not infectious to humans.

* Reporter Michael Hall writes about public safety, environment and other local topics. Contact him at, on Facebook or at 265-8320, ext. 320.

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