The famed graffiti whale - a dead Minke whale that washed up May 1 under a pier in Atlantic City and was promptly spraypainted with the letters of a fraternity - tested positive for morbillivirus, said Marine Mammal Stranding Center Chief Bob Schoelkopf.
That is the same virus responsible for 135 dead dolphins that washed up along the Jersey Coast last summer and as may as 1,300 animals up and down the coastline to Florida last year.
Schoelkopf said the virus last summer was primarily found in bottle-nosed dolphins but that there was some inter-species crossover, including two humpback whales, a pygmy sperm whale and striped dolphins.
Schoelkopf said the Atlantic City whale had also been struck by a ship. "It may have been already dead when it was struck," he said. "That's the one somebody ended up tagging with a fraternity insignia. It had a lot of things going against it.
The letters appeared to be Tau Epsilon Phi, a Voorhees-based fraternity that later issued a statement calling the act "reprehensible."
Schoelkopf said the case has been refered to federal authorities as the harassment of a federally protected animal - dead or alive - is a federal crime. A message left with the National Marine Fisheries Law Enforcement agency, which is handling the case, was not immediately returned.
"We have suspected there could be interspecies exchange of the virus because of the proximity of so many animals," Schoelkopf said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."
Schoelkopf said he was awaiting the results of tests of two dolphins found recently off the Jersey coast. And he said there is great concers over the impact of possible seismic testing being planned offshore by Rutgers University.
"Now we’ll be testing all the animals for morbilli," he said. "If they go through with the testing, we'll have to be checking for seismic damage as well.
-Amy S. Rosenberg