Florida Researchers Report First Known Bird Flu Case in a U.S. Dolphin

The remains of a bottlenose dolphin found dead in Florida in March recently tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus

Stock photo of a dolphin not the late K2. Photo: Getty

A dead dolphin found in a Florida canal in March was infected with the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), commonly known as the bird flu, at the time of his death based on the findings of Florida researchers.

According to the University of Florida Health, this is the first known instance of bird flu detected in a cetacean — an order of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises — found in the United States. The only other known bird flu case in a cetacean was identified in a Swedish porpoise in late August, per The New York Times.

The male bottlenose dolphin was found dead in March at Horseshoe Beach in Florida's Dixie County. After the University of Florida's marine animal rescue team discovered the animal, the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine later tested the dead dolphin and detected the avian influenza virus.

"While obviously, the presence of HPAIV [avian influenza] is a concern, the key takeaway for us is that additional caution should be taken by those handling or encountering wild dolphins during rescue events or while performing necropsies," Mike Walsh, D.V.M., a clinical associate professor with the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine who leads the animal rescue team said in a statement.

Winter the dolphin
Arc Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

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Dr. Richard Webby, an influenza virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, told The New York Times that the virus, which is commonly found in birds, spreading amongst new species is telling.

"Unfortunately, I think this is maybe just sort of a sign of what's to come should this virus not disappear," he said.

Martha's Vineyard birds
Male cormorant. Getty

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, HPAI has affected over 40 million birds across 36 states in 2022. The outbreak has led zoos across the country to temporarily close their bird exhibits and has been linked to seal strandings. The Department of Natural Resources in Michigan and Illinois also recommended that residents temporarily remove their bird feeders and birdbaths from outside.

In April, the CDC confirmed the first human case of this strain of bird flu in an inmate in a Colorado prison. The man contracted the disease after direct exposure to infected poultry. Despite this finding, health officials say the health risk assessment remains low for humans and that the Colorado man has since recovered from his case.

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