What is it about?

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, heart disease emerged in a variety of species who were exposed to the oil, including sea birds, fish, and even humans. Dolphins in the Northern Gulf of Mexico were heavily impacted by oil exposure, including population decline, lung disease, reproductive failure, and immune system changes. Comprehensive heart exams had not previously been performed on living, wild dolphins; given the heart disease seen in other species, we set out to examine the heart health of wild dolphins in the oil spill footprint. We first refined heart assessment techniques with dolphins under human care, then applied these techniques to wild dolphins in the oil spill footprint (Barataria Bay, Louisiana). We also examined wild dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida as a healthy, wild dolphin population, outside the oil spill footprint for comparison. We detected heart abnormalities in the Barataria Bay dolphins, including thinner heart walls, abnormal heart valves, and presence of pulmonary hypertension, which was not seen in the Sarasota dolphins.

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Why is it important?

This work describes the first comprehensive heart exams of living, wild dolphins, and described abnormalities in the hearts of wild dolphins exposed to oil. Further work is needed to determine what is normal for given populations of dolphins and continue to monitor these cardiac changes over time. Additionally, this work highlights the necessity for monitoring baseline health of wild populations before and not only after environmental disasters, to include cardiac health.

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This page is a summary of: Cardiac assessments of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the Northern Gulf of Mexico following exposure to Deepwater Horizon oil, PLoS ONE, December 2021, PLOS, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0261112.
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