The Gulf of Mexico is home to thousands of bottlenose dolphins. The acrobatic animals can often be spotted leaping and splashing in the water.

But in recent years, a devastating skin disease has afflicted some dolphins in the Gulf and around the world.

Research by Pádraig Duignan of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, shows that climate change is to blame. He says more extreme storms affect how salty the water is in dolphin’s coastal habitats.

Dolphins often live in bays and other areas where freshwater and saltwater mix.

“These are dynamic habitats that change with the tides, change with the weather, change with the season,” Duignan says.

So when a big storm hits, a lot of freshwater rushes out of rivers into these coastal waters, and the salinity can drop dramatically. That can cause lesions to develop on dolphins’ bodies.

Duignan says that when the water returns to normal, the lesions can heal and dolphins may recover. But if the low salt levels persist, there can be severe cases.

“We’ve seen dolphins that have died from this, where 80% or so of the skin surface is missing,” he says.

As climate change gets worse, prolonged outbreaks could become more frequent, and more dolphins will likely die.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.