Gulf Coast Research Lab student studying dolphin virus

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - A student at USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs is helping scientists identify the virus that's blamed for killing more than 350 dolphins along the East Coast this year.

PhD student Corey Russo is working with Dr. Jay Grimes to study the cause of the dolphin deaths.

Scientists suspect a naturally occurring virus called morbillivirus may be responsible for the vast majority of 357 dolphin deaths from New York to North Carolina. And that particular virus is the focus of Corey Russo's research.

"The first recorded and reported dolphin moribillivirus outbreak was in 1987. It led to about a 50 percent die off of inshore dolphins," said Russo.

Even though the suspected virus has been identified, there are many remaining questions.

"It'll be good to know what things the dolphins are carrying. And are they contributing those particular bacteria and viruses to humans and visa versa. You know, are the humans contributing to the dolphins," said Dr. Jay Grimes with USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab.

The outbreak of morbillivirus in 1987 and 88 is blamed for killing more than 700 dolphins. Dolphins which survived that outbreak likely passed on their immunity. But that doesn't eliminate the virus.

"After time, eventually the immunity wears off or you have new members of the population that are added. And in both cases, they're naive to the virus. They don't have the antibodies to fight them off," Russo explained.

Russo's research involves studying blood serum and blow-hole swab samples from the affected dolphins. And he's looking at a variety of viruses.

"I think this is important because if he only went after morbillivirus it would be a bias hypothesis. This way, he's looking at everything. And he'll be able to determine, do all dolphins carry moribillivirus. And if they don't carry it, are they becoming immune?" said Dr. Grimes.

There is a vaccine for the morbillivirus, but administering it to a population of wild dolphins may be a bigger challenge than identifying the virus.

Corey Russo's project to research the dolphin virus is being funded with a grant from the CIAP program.

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