An epidemic virus similar to measles is killing hundreds of dolphins

Over the past few months, hundreds of dead dolphins have washed up on the shores of beaches along the U.S. east coast, and at last scientists think they know why. It's a dolphin epidemic.

Photo via The Washington Post

According to Danielle Elliot on CBS News:

Officials confirmed Tuesday that morbillivirus, a virus similar to measles, is the culprit in the death of more than 300 dolphins along the East Coast in recent weeks. It is the same virus that killed off more than 700 dolphins between 1987 and 1988.

As of Aug. 25, 333 bottlenose dolphins have turned up dead or nearly dead along beaches from New York to North Carolina. Scientists call such cases "strandings." Virginia has seen the most deaths, with a total of 174. The virus causes substantial weight loss as well as oral and skin lesions.

There have also been many reports of floating carcasses that have not been recovered, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials said in a Tuesday conference call. This means the number of animals that have died is likely higher than currently reported.

The dolphin morbillivirus cannot infect humans, but it may yet cause more deaths among the marine mammals. Often, the dolphins are so weakened by the virus that they are attacked and killed by sharks. This is the worst epidemic that researchers have seen among the mammals since 1987, and it may continue for months or even years.

Read more on CBS News and at The Washington Post