We all know that New York City can be one of the most stressful places on Earth, but stress is also an omnipresent fact of life for wildlife, especially in the busy waters of New York Harbor.
The Friday before New Year’s Day a female Bottlenose Dolphin washed up dead during a morning high tide along the sandy edge of Plum Island at Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, located about a mile from the entrance of New York Harbor. Both the National Park Service and wildlife biologists with the non-profit NJ Marine Mammal Stranding received word of the dead dolphin around noon.
It’s unclear whether the dead dolphin was the same one spotted over the summer and fall in the nearby tidal waters of the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers. A bottlenose dolphin had been seen sporadically there since June without much public notice. The dolphin was believed to be an adult male, since most solitary dolphins are male, and was seen feeding on fish.
Living alone, though, can never be a good sign for a social animal. Bottlenose dolphins generally swim in groups (called pods) of 2 to 25 or more. Adult dolphins will generally engage in a number of cooperative behaviors throughout its life, which can be strong and long lasting.
Marine biologists and scientists do not fully know why an individual dolphin will leave a pod to live alone. A number of reasons can occur from the loss of a mate or companion to a major predator disturbance or the lack of food available to forage. Or maybe the poor critter had become a social outcast.
A strange thing about this dead female dolphin was the sight of a large visible shark bite near its dorsal fin. The bite had healed nicely over the years, but there was no mistaking the bite marks that must have caused a great deal of pain and stress for this dolphin at the time. She had been though a lot anxiety in her life already. Maybe the shark attack caused her to become a solitary cetacean.
Upon close inspection of the body, it was discovered she was about 7 feet long with a large belly. Bob Schoelkopf, executive director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, reported in NJ.com that the dolphin was pregnant. Two lives lost, a very sad situation. A Necropsy — the animal equivalent of an autopsy — will be performed soon after New Year’s Day to shed more light as what may have caused the dolphin's death.
To me it’s possible the female dolphin was swimming either by herself or with a small pod when she hastily decided to follow a school of menhaden on her own into the semi-enclosed estuarine waters of New York Harbor. With no easy exist signs, the pregnant dolphin became confused and stressed, which eventually lead to a series of health problems.
Bob Schoelkopf is asking anyone with photographs of the dolphin swimming in the Shrewsbury River this summer - particularly ones that may show a shark bite near its dorsal fin– to please share them with the Marine Mammal Stranding Center so the dolphin can be properly identified. Marine Mammal Stranding Staff can be reached at 609-266-0538.
In addition, if you see a dolphin or any marine mammal or sea turtle that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person: in New Jersey call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 609-266-0538, in New York call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at 631-369-9829. These two non-profit organizations have the authority to help stranded or sick marine mammals and sea turtles. Wildlife experts with the help of trained volunteers will determine if an animal is in need of medical attention, needs to be moved from a populated area, or just needs time to rest.