Early on New Year's Day, a fisherman at Wellfleet Harbor on Cape Cod noticed something strange in the water near the town boat dock: a pair of dorsal fins struggling in shallow water belonging to a 1,100-pound Risso's dolphin and its calf. Soon, more of these giant marine mammals arrived, crowding themselves onto shore.
The fisherman called a rescue team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in nearby Yarmouthport, Mass., which then put out a call for volunteers throughout the region. By noon, dozens of local residents arrived to hoist five dolphins and their calves onto giant stretchers and transport them via truck to nearby beaches with access to deep water.
The animals survived, but many times they don't. Researchers at the conservation group are still puzzled why these particular dolphins - seemingly in good health and usually living in deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean - blundered into their neighborhood.
"This is an example of a species that shouldn't be here," said Brian Sharp, director of the IFAW's marine mammal rescue and research group. "We have no idea why they came this close to shore."
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Now Sharp and NASA scientists will be testing a new theory that solar flares may have disturbed the Earth's magnetic field, and the marine mammals that often rely on it for navigation through uncharted waters.
The scientists are comparing NASA's data on solar activity with IFAW's catalog of mass strandings across the United States. They hope to find a strong correlation that will solve a long-standing mystery of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals that run aground for no apparent reason.
"It has been talked about, but never looked at scientifically whether, when those magnetic fields are disrupted, is there a correlation between that and mass strandings," Sharp said.
Magnetic anomalies occur when the sun sends gigantic bubbles of charged particles out into the solar system. These particles can cause problems for Earth-orbiting satellites and power grids when they slam into Earth's protective magnetosphere. It's possible they could affect animals, as well, according to researchers.
With funding from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and NASA's Science Innovation Fund, NASA and collaborators will conduct a data-mining operation. The team will analyze NASA's large space-weather databases, including field recordings and space observations, and stranding data gathered by BOEM and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
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Previous studies have looked at whether whales or dolphins that live in big social groups might follow a sick leader into shore, or whether viruses or parasites affect the marine mammals' ability to steer underwater.
Perhaps the answer lies in space.
"There are space-weather predictions that are being done, and in principle, if we find there is a connection and identify the physical mechanism, you could use space weather forecasting to drive some kind of actions," said Antti Pulkkinen, a research astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Researchers from IFAW say an early warning system for strandings could help alert volunteers in time to save the animals from dying on the beaches.
Pulkkinen said he expects to complete the project in September and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal.
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