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Baby seals are washing up dead on New England's coast

October 24, 2011 |  7:00 am

Dozens of dead seals have been washing up on the New England coast this fall.

Young seals, called pups, often turn up dead in the region this time of year. But the number — 128 since Sept. 1 — is unusually high, experts say.

“This is really an exceptional event,” Tony LaCasse of the New England Aquarium told Boston’s public radio station, WBUR. “The rate for harbor seals in the central New England coast, from about Cape Ann in northern Massachusetts to Cape Elizabeth in southern Maine, is probably three to four times the normal rate.”

And a specialist with the aquarium told the station that the dead young seals don’t appear underfed.

“To our surprise ... when we did those first autopsies, the blubber layer was adequate on all the animals that we’re seeing,” LaCasse said.

After eliminating hunger and foul play, experts are exploring a range of diseases, including seal pox, a version of chicken pox. Scientists are testing tissue, blubber, muscles and almost every organ in the seals.

There’s evidence that some of the dead had pneumonia, but the underlying cause — a new pathogen or something environmental -- has yet to be determined, LaCasse said.

According to a story in seacoastonline.com, all sorts of theories about what’s causing the spike in seal deaths are being tested. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution along with researchers at the University of New Hampshire are wondering whether algae blooms are playing a role.

The last time such a huge population of seals died, the cause was influenza. That was during the winter of 1979-80, when hundreds washed ashore from the outer Cape up to central Maine.

But this fall, other animals also are showing up dead -- whales, tuna and seagulls -- Inga Sidor, a senior veterinary pathologist at the New Hampshire Veterinarian Diagnostic Lab, told seacoastonline.com.

"When you start to have more than one specific group that is affected, that is when the bell starts to go off," she said.

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---Geraldine Baum

 

 

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