Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/08/30/dolphin_epidemic/

Viral epidemic strikes Spain's Mediterranean dolphins

Better news for the Yangtze River 'baiji', however

By Lester Haines

Posted in Science, 30th August 2007 10:59 GMT

Spain's Mediterranean striped dolphin population is under threat from a virus epidemic which could see off up to two-thirds of the estimated 118,000 population, El Mundo reports.

Biologists have identified the first victims of the Morbillivirus - a member of the measels and rinderpest family - which they say was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of dolphins in 1990-91 and has recently affected pilot whale populations which inhabit the seas around the Canary Islands.

Several dolphin corpses recovered from the coast in Murcia and Velancia were sent to the Animal Health Institute of Las Palmas for analysis, which confirmed the worst. The institute's director, Antonio Fernández, explained: "I've identified the virus and its characteristics. It's without doubt the same which caused pilot whale deaths during the winter, and which was also responsible for the 1990s epidemic."

Alex Aguilar of Barcelona Univesity's biology department added: "It's exactly the same as it was 17 years ago. The disease was first detected in Valencia, then it spread along the coast of the Levant and finally appeared in October in France and Italy.

"The disease finally ran out of steam in the winter of 1990 between Italy and Tunisia, but in June 1991 reappeared and spread as far as Turkey. It's impossible to say how many dolphins died, but the total was in the thousands. We received reports of 1,100 corpses."

Javier Pantoja, head of marine conservation in Spain's environment ministry, called the deaths "the beginning of an epidemic", and confirmed his department had arranged a mid-September meeting in which the affected regions and experts would discuss how best to confront the crisis.

In China, meanwhile, the authorities have cheeringly announced the sighting of an endangered Yangtze River dolphin, aka "baiji".

The baiji was recently declared extinct, following a six-week expedition by interantional experts last year which failed to spot a single specimen, the BBC notes. However, Zeng Yujiang in the country's eastern province of Anhui earlier this month filmed an individual, and experts later confirmed it was almost certainly an elusive baiji.

The Chinese will now dispatch a team to the area to probe the matter, with a view to capturing any wild animals for breeding. The outlook for the baiji is, sadly, not healthy. The BBC notes: "In the 1950s there were thousands of Yangtze River dolphins, but numbers have declined drastically due to industrial pollution, heavy river traffic and over-fishing."

Indeed, a 1997 survey found just 13 baiji in the wild, the last sighting was in 2004, and the last captive individual, Qi Qi, popped his fins in 2002. ®