While beachgoers were splashing in the surf and working on their tans this summer, something sinister was happening in the waters off of the East Coast of the U.S. There has been a dramatic spike in the number of bottlenose dolphins washing up sick or dead on beaches between Virginia and New Jersey in the past two months. With more questions than answers as to what’s causing this deadly phenomenon, the federal government recently joined in on the investigation.

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“There’s a number of things that cause animals to strand,” Maggie Mooney-Seus, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told CBS News. “It could be biotoxins. It could be disease. It could be human interactions with fishing gear.”

Of particular concern is that the phenomenon seems to be so focused among one species – the bottlenose dolphin. To aid in the investigation, researchers and animal rescue teams are working hard to collect each disabled dolphin or carcass as soon as it appears on shore. In some cases, researchers have been able to nurse ill dolphins back to health. The vast majority are simply transported for autopsies and sample collection.

The only clue they have moving forward is an eerily similar case that occurred back in the summers of 1987 and 1988. At that time, the cause was determined to be morbillivirus, a measles-like, airborne virus that’s often fatal in dolphins. That epidemic wiped out “at least 900 animals and [struck] a major blow to that population of migratory dolphins,” reports National Geographic. Researchers have their fingers crossed that the current issue won’t be a repeat, but so far, signs aren’t promising.

More than 120 dolphins have already been found dead. Virginia has seen the biggest spike, with 42 dolphin fatalities in July, compared to 10 in July 2011 and 2012 combined.

“Marine mammals are like the canary in the coal mine — many bottlenose dolphins live on the same coasts and eat the same fish that we do,” Trevor Spradlin, a marine mammal biologist for the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service told NatGeo.”Our first mandate is to protect the dolphins, but the underlying bigger picture is if things are hurting these animals, [they] could also be hurting people as well.”

Via CBS News

Image via lorda and bobistraveling