February 22, 2018  

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Southern Miss Professor: Variety of Factors Possible in Baby Dolphin Deaths

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Dr. Stan Kuczaj

A variety of factors could have lead to the death of dolphin calves that recently washed up on the Mississippi shore, says a University of Southern Mississippi professor who conducts research on dolphins.

Dr. Stan Kuczaj, a Southern Miss psychology professor and director of the university’s Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory, said today’s report of more dolphin calves found on the Mississippi and Alabama coastlines is disturbingly high. Nearly 20 have been reported so far this year along the Gulf Coast.

“We may see two or three wash up on shore by this each year, so this is well above normal. And those are just the ones we’ve found on the beach,” he said. A research team from the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies is investigating the situation.

Kuczaj and his graduate students have conducted more than 20 years of cognition and communication research on the popular marine mammal including in the Mississippi Sound and off the coast of Honduras. He has also worked with faculty in the Southern Miss Department of Biology in studying dolphins.

Speculation on the cause of the deaths center on the impact of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Kuczaj says that is a possibility, but is only one potential cause.

“They could have died because the mother was swimming in the oil, consumed affected fish or breathed oil fumes for an extended period of time, but it could have been caused by cold temperatures,” he said. “We won’t really know why until we get the results of the necropsies (autopsies),” which he said could take weeks or months, depending on the extent of the lab work needed.

Kuczaj’s dolphin research has received support from the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Department of Commerce, and has been featured on the science television show NOVA and on Japanese Public Television.

His research in Honduras began five years ago through a study abroad program near Utila, sponsored by Southern Miss International Education. The journal Marine Mammal Science published research that his team conducted in examining the mammal’s habitat off the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.

For more information on the Southern Miss Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory, online visit http://www.usm.edu/psy-kuczaj/