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Mass dolphin stranding near Everglades Park still a mystery almost year later

Scientists have concluded that scores of dolphins that beached themselves in southern Collier County in January died of exposure, but a mystery remains about why they came ashore in the first place.

Almost 100 dolphins of a species known as false killer whales stranded on Hog Key, a remote spot on the western edge of Everglades National Park south of Chokoloskee.

Scores of dolphins, a species also known as false killer whales, beached themselves on Hog Key on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, on the western edge of Everglades National Park south of Chokoloskee. Nearly 100 animals beached themselves, of which more than 80 died, the largest mass stranding in the Southeast. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists still are trying to determine what caused the incident. (Photo courtesy of Louis Erickson)

It was one of the largest marine mammal strandings in U.S. history and the largest to occur in the Southeast.

Scores of dolphins, a species also known as false killer whales, beached themselves on Hog Key on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, on the western edge of Everglades National Park south of Chokoloskee. Nearly 100 animals beached themselves, of which more than 80 died, the largest mass stranding in the Southeast. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists still are trying to determine what caused the incident. (Photo courtesy of Louis Erickson)
Scores of dolphins, a species also known as false killer whales, beached themselves on Hog Key on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, on the western edge of Everglades National Park south of Chokoloskee. Nearly 100 animals beached themselves, of which more than 80 died, the largest mass stranding in the Southeast. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists still are trying to determine what caused the incident. (Photo: Courtesy Louis Erickson)

More than 80 animals are known to have died, including 10 that had to be euthanized in the field. An additional 13 dolphins were seen, but scientists don’t know what happened to them.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration still is waiting for the results of tests that could rule out disease or biotoxin as a cause of the stranding.

“It’s rare when we have a smoking gun,” said Blair Mase, NOAA’s coordinator on marine mammal strandings.

Mase said the remoteness of the site made it impossible to collect samples from all of the stranded animals, but biologists found no underlying disease in any of the necropsies.

One theory is that a few sick false killer whales might have led the rest of the group ashore from their normal home range in deeper waters, Mase said.

They were found with empty stomachs and intestines, but it is unclear whether they stopped eating before or after they left deeper waters, she said.

Scores of dolphins, a species also known as false killer whales, beached themselves on Hog Key on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, on the western edge of Everglades National Park south of Chokoloskee. Nearly 100 animals beached themselves, of which more than 80 died, the largest mass stranding in the Southeast. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists still are trying to determine what caused the incident. (Photo courtesy of Louis Erickson)
Scores of dolphins, a species also known as false killer whales, beached themselves on Hog Key on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, on the western edge of Everglades National Park south of Chokoloskee. Nearly 100 animals beached themselves, of which more than 80 died, the largest mass stranding in the Southeast. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists still are trying to determine what caused the incident. (Photo courtesy of Louis Erickson)

Mase said it is “highly unlikely” that sonar testing at Key West or seismic exercises off Cuba had an influence in the stranding because of the distance from the stranding site and the timing. NOAA is following up with experts to confirm that, she said.

A Golden Gate lawyer who was camping at Hog Key and witnessed the stranding said he is not expecting scientists to come up with a cause.

“It seemed to me this was a random thing I hear about all over,” Louis Erickson said.

In December 2013, 10 pilot whales died on Highland Beach, not far from Hog Key, and 40 other pilot whales swam in very shallow water offshore.

A Marco Island couple shelling on Kice Island in January 2014 found 25 dead pilot whales on a nearby barrier island, less than a week after a team of boats steered the whales out of Gordon Pass in Naples.

Eight dead pilot whales were found at New Pass near Lovers Key State Park in south Lee County.

Other false killer whale strandings in the Southeast included 28 in the Florida Keys in 1986, 40 at Cedar Key in 1989 and two in Yankeetown in Florida’s Big Bend region in 2009.

 

This article was republished from the Naples Daily News.

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