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Beached NJ Whale Confirmed as Morbillivirus Victim

Jun 13, 2014 03:20 PM EDT

A dead minke whale that had washed up on the New Jersey Shore last month has been confirmed as a victim of cetacean morbillivirus - a virus that has been causing an alarming number of strandings on the East Coast since last year.

The lab confirmation was announced by Bob Schoelkopf, chief of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, according to local reports.

The whale, which washed up under an Atlantic City pier on May 1, tested positive for the same virus that has been causing nearly 1,300 marine life stranding and deaths since 2013.

The disease has primarily affected bottle nosed dolphins, according to the NOAA, who declared the striking rise in number of strandings from the mid-Atlantic from June 2013 through May 2014 as an Unusual Mortality Event. This declaration has launched an ongoing investigation into the causes of the strandings, where morbillivirus is listed as one of the primary causes.

According to Schoelkopf, the virus is in the midst of inter-species crossover, as it has already been identified in humpback whales, striped dolphins, and pygmy sperm whales as well.

This most recent case in the minke whale was almost overlooked, as initial reports indicated it has been struck by a boat, according to Philly news.

Schoelkopf said it's not unlikely that the virus had already killed the minke by the time it was struck.

As of May, an unusual number of whales have been struck by ships. Some experts speculate that an increase in food supply is driving whales closer to shores, but unusual behavior influenced by the morbillivirus could be another explanation.

According to the NOAA, the virus is similar to the measles infection in humans, causing a skin reaction and breathing difficulty. Unlike measles, the virus can also result in a brain infection, causing the animals to become confused.

Right now, there is no real way to treat morbillivirus, as there is no known cure. Even if there was, distributing it could prove difficult.

"We can't inoculate every marine mammal in the ocean," Schoelkopf told CNN.

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