THE DEATHS this winter of more than 100 dolphins on Cape Cod, while scores of emotionally wrought volunteers raced against time in the muck of mud flats to save dozens more, was the most heart-tugging chapter yet in a signature mystery of New England’s animal kingdom. Why do dolphins and pilot whales swim ashore on Cape Cod? As scientists struggle to find an answer, the drama on the beaches should be a prod to both government and private donors to provide funds to help the New England Aquarium and other institutions continue their research. Unfortunately, President Obama’s budget eliminates the $4 million per year grant to study mass strandings. It’s a tiny item that could help answer one of the natural world’s most troubling questions.
After humans, some species of dolphins have the largest brains for their size - proportionally even larger than those of the great apes, according to UMass Dartmouth marine scientist Richard Connor. Connor has studied dolphins for nearly 30 years and charted their intricate social networks. Yet year after year, those networks have a major short circuit on the Cape, with the current stranding likely to be among the largest on record. Scientists have only questions, not answers. Is it because they chased prey too close to shore during a falling tide? Does turbulence from wind blowing over shallow waters knock out their echolocation guidance systems? Is it because the leader was sick or wounded and others followed the dying drifter? Scientists also wonder about the changing water temperatures and currents, and industrial contaminants that might confuse the animals’ brains.
Whatever the precipitating event, the stress seems to render dolphins and pilot whales incapable of making an emergency U-turn when fellow animals swim into trouble. “It’s like how people panic in the woods when they lose the trail,’’ said New England Aquarium media relations director Tony LaCasse, who has participated in rescues.
Scientists hope to end the guessing game by tracking dolphins with satellite tags, obtaining DNA samples from the dead animals, closely monitoring changes in climate and ocean conditions, and studying evidence of pollution. What they have learned so far, with the aid of satellite tags, is that many of the stranded dolphins that volunteers are able to save do survive for thousands of miles more swimming in the Gulf of Maine.
But even as some of these mysteries are finally beginning to unravel, the Obama administration proposes to eliminate the program that supports the nation’s marine mammal stranding rescue networks. Ironically, the $4 million program is named after John Prescott, the director of the New England Aquarium from 1972 to 1994. Early in his career, Prescott helped discover echolocation in dolphins. At the aquarium, he founded its stranding rescue network. It would be an irony, just as scientists begin to locate the reasons these brilliant creatures swim aground, for the government to abandon the rescues that often come in Prescott’s name.