A previously undiscovered strain of cetacean morbillivirus, a disease that may cause fatal illnesses in marine animals worldwide, has been discovered by biologists in Hawaii. The virus was found in a single Fraser's dolphin, a highly sociable animal, raising fears that it may spread and cause havoc outside of the central Pacific.

In 2018, a two-year study into the status of this male young Fraser's dolphin (Lagenodelphis hosei) was stranded off the shore of Maui. Its body was in decent form, but its organs and cells were showing indications of illness.

According to Krisi West, associate researcher at UH Mnoa's Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, a genomic study of cell cultures identified the culprit: a "new and extremely divergent strain of morbillivirus" that scientists were "before unaware of."

Cetacean Morbillivirus

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Only a few strains of cetacean morbillivirus exist, but they're terrible news, producing fatal epidemics in marine animals across the world, including cetaceans (which includes both dolphins and whales).

The virus that causes human measles and the virus that causes canine distemper are both members of the Morbillivirus genus. The study's findings were published today in Scientific Reports.

Related Article: Cetacean Strandings: Whales Are Beaching Themselves, Who Do We Blame?

Interacting with Other Cetaceans

Wild Dolphins Apparently Have a Range of Personalities
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

Fraser's dolphins are known to interact with other dolphins and whales, and they are very sociable and friendly. As a result, Fraser's dolphins, an oceanic species, may be able to spread this highly contagious disease to other regions of the planet, putting marine wildlife managers and environmentalists on high alert.

"It's also critical for us here in Hawai'i because we have many other species of dolphins and whales-about 20 species call Hawai'i home-that might be vulnerable to an epidemic of this virus," West added.

"An example is our endangered insular fake killer whales, which are believed to number just 167 individuals. If morbillivirus spreads across that population, it would not only be a severe impediment to population recovery, but it might also put the species at risk of extinction."

This is, without a doubt, a really severe situation. Previous occurrences involving new morbillivirus strains resulted in significant mortality rates among dolphins off the coasts of Brazil and Australia's west coast. Over 200 Guiana dolphins are thought to have died of the illness in Brazil between November and December 2017.

Mass Immunization

(Photo : Getty Images)

According to the authors of the current study, more research is needed to assess immunization rates among dolphins and whales in the central Pacific, according to the authors of the current study, since this might assist in determining the prevalence of past infections and the breadth of the epidemic.

Getting a grasp on this illness, on the other hand, will be difficult. Only around 5% of cetaceans that die in Hawaiian seas are recovered by the UH Health and Stranding Lab. The team urges the public to call the NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline if they see any dead or distressed marine animals.

An extensive vaccination effort may be achievable, which is encouraging. According to the news release, NOAA has been working on a morbillivirus vaccine program to develop herd immunity among Hawaii's endangered monk seals. It's even better to know that vaccination apprehension won't be a concern for oceanic dolphins.

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