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Pilot whale beaches at Kennedy Space Center

Beached whale had to be euthanized

Rescuers haul in a pilot whale that stranded Thursday at Kennedy Space Center.
Rescuers haul in a pilot whale that stranded Thursday at Kennedy Space Center. (Photo: Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute)

Biologists will test whether a measles-like virus that killed more than 1,600 dolphins since July 2013 also killed in an 11-foot pilot whale that beached itself Thursday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

"It's a big female," said Megan Stolen, a research scientist with the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute. "It was emaciated."

Stolen and fellow biologists are examining the pilot whale's remains Friday at Hubbs' lab near Melbourne Beach, extracting lung, lymph node and spinal cord tissues to test for the so-called morbillivirus.

The virus has been killing bottlenose dolphins along the Atlantic Coast for more than two years in the worst outbreak of the virus in almost three decades.

The virus claimed 740 dolphins from New Jersey to Florida in 1987.

At about 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Hubbs biologists received a report from Canaveral National Seashore staff that the whale had become stranded alive on the beach within the national park.

The whale washed out for a while but washed back into the beach at KSC by about 1 p.m. Thursday, Stolen said.

Hubbs staff euthanized the whale. Deep-sea whales rarely survive beaching. But National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries also mandates that all whales and dolphins that beach during a morbillivirus outbreak must be euthanized to prevent the spread of the virus.

Dolphins infected with the virus wash up with lesions on their skin, mouth, joints, or lungs.

Since July 2013, the virus has killed more than 1,660 bottlenose dolphins, from New Jersey to Brevard, more than 300 of them in Florida, according to NOAA Fisheries.

Stolen said about 30 dead bottlenose dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon region have tested positive for the virus. But as many as 100 in the region might have died from the virus, the Hubbs researchers suspect.

"We haven't had any positive cases in other species," Stolen said, adding that none have tested positive in the lagoon since Feb. 10.

"So we feel like things are getting better."

If tests continue to show no morbillivirus infections, NOAA Fisheries may soon consider declaring a formal end to the unusual die-off, Stolen said. That would also end the mandatory euthanizing of the stranded dolphins and whales.