Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dolphin Strandings

Because I am not just a science educator but also a marine educator I get asked about the recent dolphin strandings a lot. In fact I get asked about whale beachings/dolphin strandings a lot in general. This late winter/early spring they have been in the news a lot so I've talked to more people recently. The question is either "are you helping out?" or "why is this happening?" The former seems to be a kind of vague assertion that there must be something we can do, which really there isn't. The main thing humans do after these large stranding events is perform necropsies. Which relates to that second question. The answer there is we still have no idea. We have some pretty good guesses and there are really smart people working on it but no one knows why whales beach and dolphins strand 100% of the time.

A few things to keep in mind if you're ever asked: this is a normal, seasonal event. Pretty much every year we see this happen. It's happening in larger numbers this year but a lot of our science points to that being, overall, a good thing. We think it's just that there's more dolphins. More dolphins, more strandings. It's received extra coverage this year purely due to numbers.

Second, the dolphins are not sick or going insane or involved in any kind of kool-aide dolphin cults. Here's what we think might be happening: groups of dolphins are foraging in tidal flats, often flats that they have not explored very well. These areas can be very close to sea level and at low tide you can often walk three or four miles further to the sea than you can at high tide. If a group of dolphins is foraging here and suddenly the tide shifts currents can be incredibly strong and the tide can empty quickly, leaving groups of dolphins stranded. Yes, they are very intelligent but they make mistakes.

On my trip to Cape Cod I actually saw evidence of these strandings. I took a few photographs and uploaded them to the web album. I didn't want to insert them in the post because...looking at images of dead dolphins can be upsetting for some people.

At first I was surprised that they had just been left in the marsh. One of these animals was just right next to a trailhead. After thinking about it a bit I thought, well this is part of the ecology, there's a huge amount of energy here. When I talked to one of my colleagues about it, though, she seemed to indicate that really it had nothing to do with that and it's simply that IFAW is overwhelmed. They would ordinarily take them all and do necropsies on as many as possible. Because we're seeing such a large number this year some of them have been left behind.

I think the emotions these animals bring out of people are good in a way. We should care about animals. But I also think there are other animals that could benefit from human intervention more. People believe that dolphins are inherently good somehow or friendly or have some kind of connection with people. It's just not the case. They're large, carnivorous marine mammals. They are very intelligent and have been known to help people but I believe we should try to take a step back and interact with them in the same way we interact with any wild animal.

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