New study says Deepwater Horizon oil disaster caused fetal and newborn dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico

 Lung abnormalities found in 88% of perinatal dolphins in spill zone

dolphins Deepwater Horizon spill
New research shows how harmful the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was for dolphins in the spill zone. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

Scientists studying the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico say results of a recently completed four-year study of dolphin strandings confirm that the spill took a toll on marine mammals.

“Our new findings add to the mounting evidence from peer-reviewed studies that exposure to petroleum compounds following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill negatively impacted the reproductive health of dolphin populations living in the oil spill footprint in the northern Gulf of Mexico,” said Dr. Teri Rowles, a veterinarian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program and a co-author on the study.

The research came after the federal government declared an “unusual mortality event” in the Gulf after reports of numerous strandings starting in 2010 and continuing to 2014. A series of studies has linked the oil spill with multiple impacts to ocean species, including developmental and sensory defects in fish, heart defects in tuna, and swimming deficiencies in juvenile mahi mahi. Other research tracked the impacts to deep water corals.

The latest findings, reported in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, identified substantial differences between fetal and newborn dolphins found stranded inside and outside the areas affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The scientists looked at 69 perinatal common bottlenose dolphins in areas most affected by the spill, and 26 others found in areas unaffected by the spill. Scientists saw higher numbers of stranded perinatal dolphins in the spill zone in 2011 than in other years. The young dolphins, which died in the womb or shortly after birth, “were significantly smaller than those that stranded during previous years and in other geographic locations,” they reported.

Bottlenose dolphin gestation takes about 380 days, so perinatal dolphins that died in the early months of 2011 could have been exposed in the womb to petroleum products released the previous year, said University of Illinois veterinary diagnostic laboratory professor Kathleen Colegrove, who led the study. Colegrove works in the Chicago-based Zoological Pathology Program at the U. of I.

“Dolphin dams losing fetuses in 2011 would have been in the earlier stages of pregnancy in 2010 during the oil spill,” she said.

According to the findings, 88 percent of the perinatal dolphins found in the spill zone had lung abnormalities, including partially or completely collapsed lungs. That and their small size suggest that they died in the womb or very soon after birth — before their lungs had a chance to fully inflate. Only 15 percent of those found in areas unaffected by the spill had this lung abnormality, the researchers said.

The researchers also concluded that the spill-zone dolphins were “particularly susceptible to late-term pregnancy failures, signs of fetal distress and development of in utero infections including brucellosis,” a bacterial infection that can affect the brain, lungs, bones and reproductive function. Extensive testing found no evidence that an unusual or highly pathogenic Brucella strain was involved.

“These findings support that pregnant dolphins experienced significant health abnormalities that contributed to increased fetal deaths or deaths of dolphin neonates shortly after birth,” Colegrove said.

A previous study by many of the same researchers revealed that nonperinatal bottlenose dolphins stranded in the spill zone after the spill were much more likely than other stranded dolphins to have severe lung and adrenal gland damage “consistent with petroleum product exposure.”

“These diseases in pregnant dolphins likely led to reproductive losses,” Colegrove said.

The study team also included researchers from the Animal Health Center in Abbotsford, British Columbia; the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans; the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the University of South Alabama; the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi; the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida; the National Marine Mammal Foundation; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the University of Georgia; and the University of North Carolina.

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