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Dolphin detectives

December 11, 2004

Jeff Benson

Scientists on Friday examined and buried the second of two bottlenose

dolphins that inhabited Newport Harbor since July.

However, they have not been able to pinpoint the cause of death of

the dolphin, which washed up on Lido Island last week.

Scientists and students at Orange Coast College who examined the

remains of the male dolphin -- the younger of the two that fed in the

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harbor -- didn't find any signs of trauma or impairment, OCC marine

science professor Dennis Kelly said. But a loss of blubber indicated

that the dolphin hadn't eaten in weeks, he said.

Tissue samples will be sent to a lab to see if pollutants may have

impaired the organs, he said.

A larger dolphin was found dead in September but was too badly

decomposed to study, Kelly said, adding that its gender could not be

determined. The juvenile, estimated at 2 to 3 years old, was buried

next to the other one Friday night near the Upper Newport Bay Science

Center in Newport Beach. Kelly said he and the students will exhume

both dolphins' bones next fall and display them at the center.

Some students had affectionately named the younger one "Dex" and

the elder "Sandy", while studying them three times a week near the

Pacific Coast Highway bridge and Pearson's Port.

Richard Evans, director of the Pacific Wildlife Center in Laguna

Niguel, oversaw the necropsy, or animal autopsy, outside an OCC

laboratory. Brian Shmaefsky, a biologist for the Texas Marine Mammals

Stranding Network in Galveston, Texas, and nine OCC students assisted

with the procedure.

"We're looking for obvious causes of death," Shmaefsky said.

"Dolphins live a long time, but when they get this close to shore

there are lots of things that can kill them."

Kelly believes the dolphin died Nov. 23, which means it floated

around in the bay for more than a week before it was found. Marine

mammal remains usually have a 48-hour window before they're

considered useless for examination, but the dolphin was well

preserved by frigid bay waters, he said.

"The water in the bay is cold this time of year, and it was almost

in a deep freeze while it was floating around," Kelly said.

Scientists and students took samples of the dolphin's brain,

blubber, muscle, kidney, liver and skin and hope to get them analyzed

for meningitis and priority pollutants, including

dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT, and metals.

They hope to obtain funding for the analysis, since it's $500 to

$800 to inspect each tissue sample, Kelly said. There is no timetable

to obtain a cause of death, he said, and the samples will be frozen.

OCC's marine science students took duplicate samples so they can

conduct their own research, and took turns assisting Evans with the

necropsy procedure by cutting away muscle tissue from bone. Others

videotaped the process.

Molly Kent, 23, said she and a classmate took frequent trips to

study the dolphin over the past few months, while it entertained

spectators.

"We were both a little upset when it died," she said. "We've done

dissections in lab classes and stuff, but never a dolphin. It's a

very good opportunity for us to learn about them."

* JEFF BENSON covers education and may be reached at (714)

966-4617 or by e-mail at jeff.benson@latimes.com.

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