Thoughtful Thursdays: The Impact of Marine Debris on Animal Strandings

On Sunday, July 15, the Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) team was alerted to a live stranded dolphin at the northern-most end of Assateague Island National Seashore. The body condition of the animal appeared normal, but the animal’s behavior indicated it was stressed.

The animal was identified as an Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis), strandings of which have been rarely documented in Maryland. Atlantic spotted dolphins are different from Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, but share similar habitat off the coast of Maryland during the summer months. Spotted dolphins are typically a darker purplish-gray and have variable spots that develop with age, and are often found in groups of 20 or more individuals. When an individual animal of a social species strands, it can be an indicator that the animal separated from a group due to reasons such as health or social issues.

Trained first responders arrived on the scene and acted quickly to provide triage and coordinate a plan to move the animal off the island. Unfortunately, the condition of the animal deteriorated during transport and the animal was humanely euthanized by Aquarium veterinarians to relieve suffering.

While this outcome is unfortunate, there is still a great deal that we can learn from the experience and from all stranded animals. For every animal that does not survive, we perform a complete necropsy (an animal autopsy). In this case, we worked closely with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Final necropsy results are still pending, but there was one surprising find – an intact nitrile-coated glove was found in the stomach of the animal. This was likely a contributing factor to the cause for stranding.

Sadly, our MARP team sees this sort of case all too often. Many animals mistake trash for food and ingest all sorts of manmade, toxic items. To an endangered leatherback sea turtle, a plastic bag floating in the water looks like a tasty jellyfish—its primary prey. Trash and contaminants in the water pose health threats to humans, as well. Whether we live along the shore or hundreds of miles inland, our lives are all intimately connected to the ocean.

We caused this problem, and it’s up to us to fix it. We need to work together in international camaraderie to prevent items from reaching the water in the first place.

A member of the National Aquarium Conservation Team (ACT!) cleans up garbage at Ft. McHenry

There are a number of ways you can help!

  • Be mindful of safely disposing of all your trash, especially while on the beach or out on the water. What washes up on our shores is only a fraction of the garbage that ends up in the ocean.
  • Sign up for a conservation event like the International Coastal Cleanup (happening September 15, 2012).
  • Help out with one of the Aquarium’s conservation projects around the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic coast.

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