On top of raging wildfires and intensifying hurricanes, the ocean’s angelic and intelligent mammals, a.k.a. dolphins, are severely suffering from the impacts of the climate crisis. An international study recently published in Scientific Reports links a potentially-fatal skin disease in the animals to climate change.
According to the study, dolphins have developed a novel "fresh-water skin disease (FWSD)" that causes their skin to take on water to the point of their cells bursting. This happens as a result of an influx of freshwater reducing the salinity, or saltiness, of water along the coasts at a rate that dolphins have not been able to adapt to.
Scientists began investigating the previously unknown disease after seeing large numbers of dolphins die in 2007 and 2009.
"They were having these die-offs in dolphins, and we didn't know what they were," study author Pádraig Duignan told EcoWatch. "We couldn't find a link to any disease that had been described in the literature before. Then we looked to all this data. Sure enough, we saw that it's part of a pattern."
According to the study, when dolphins are in an environment that experiences a quick increase in freshwater, their skin cells take on the water through osmosis and swell. Some of these cells pop and create holes which can later become ulcers or lesions until “the skin no longer can serve as a healthy barrier against the outside world.”
All the skin damage caused by FWSD can leave the dolphins extremely vulnerable, leading to organ dysfunction, infections, or death, among other health defects.
"Some of these animals lose 70% of their skin. There's no way back from that in the wild," Duignan said.
Outbreaks of this skin disease in dolphins have been documented in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas, where surges in freshwater result from increasing hurricanes and flooding in the Gulf region, linked to climate change. Unfortunately, researchers believe it’s only going to get worse.
"We are concerned now about how this is being seen more frequently," Duignan said. "This year was a record hurricane season, and who knows about next year. More Katrinas and more Harveys might be on their way, and each time, this will be happening to the dolphins. I think it will get worse."