MIAMI, Feb. 23, 2011 -- A tide of dead infant dolphins has washed ashore along a 100-mile stretch of the Alabama and Mississippi coastlines in the past two weeks, and marine experts today said they believe last summer's Gulf oil spill may be to blame.
A total of 24 of the young dolphins been found dead in the last couple weeks, including five in the past 24 hours. Marine mammal researchers fear it will only get worse.
"I believe this is very very unusual what we're dealing with. It's a tenfold increase in calves that are dying," Moby Solangi, the head of the Mississippi based Institute for Marine Mammal Research, told ABC News. "Every year, we get one or two babies that die. Now, we're seeing stillborn, or preemies dying."
"With some, we're not sure if they actually took a breath," said Dr. Delphine Shannon, also of the IMMR.
The gestation period for bottlenose dolphins is between 11 and 12 months. "That means the mothers would have conceived between March and May. If the mothers are delivering their calves now and many are dying, that is significant," Solangi said.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, unleashing a torrent of 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico -- the largest spill in American history. At one point the spill covered about 70,000 square miles.
Solangi couldn't directly link the two events but fears that the animals could have "ingested something that may have affected their reproduction."
Solangi and his team say there's a chance this could be an anomaly. "But in my 30 years of studying dolphins I have never seen anything like this. This is highly unusual."
Dead Dolphins Found on Gulf Coast
The relation between the oil spill and the dolphin deaths could be direct or indirect. The dolphin mothers may have ingested heavy metals in the oil or the chemicals used to disperse the oil, Solangi said. Or the oil eating bacteria that flourished during the summer may have caused an imbalance in the animals' guts, causing bacterial infections that may have caused the mothers to abort the calves.
Regardless said Solangi, "We're like to see many more of these calves washed ashore," before calving season ends in May.