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Maya Update: Necropsy and Pathology Results


In July 2019, the National Aquarium reported the loss of its female Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, Maya.

Maya, 18 years old at the time of her death, was the fourth eldest of the Aquarium's colony of dolphins. In the late winter, Maya first began exhibiting signs of illness, including a significant loss of appetite. Animal Health staff immediately responded by providing her with a steady regimen of food and fluids supplemented with vitamins, electrolytes, antibiotics and other medications.

After a short period of initial improvement, diagnostics indicated multiple organs in Maya's body were inflamed, including her liver. After a period of further rapid decline, Aquarium staff made the difficult decision to euthanize Maya so she would not endure any additional pain or suffering.

Acute liver disease and symptoms related to her chronic iron storage disease led to Maya's critical decline in health. The following is a summary of the findings from the necropsy (animal autopsy) produced by our consulting pathologists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine:

Major Findings

  • During her extended period of illness, Maya experienced significant weight loss and depletion of fat stores.
  • As was previously known by her caretakers, the pathology results confirmed Maya was suffering from a severe case of liver disease. Consistent with that disease:
    • Iron build-up in the liver was generating free radicals in her body, leading to cell damage and inflammation
    • Iron deposits were found in other organs in addition to the liver, including kidneys, spleen, adrenal glands and lymph nodes
  • Maya experienced severe lymphoid depletion, meaning her ability to respond to any infections or inflammatory process was limited.
  • Maya was also suffering from a gastrointestinal disease, which caused some hemorrhaging and inflammation in her intestines and chronic ulceration in one of her stomach chambers.

Summary of Consultations with Experts in the Medical, Veterinary and Pathology Fields

  • The severity of Maya's iron storage disease is considered rare by the experts that have consulted on her case.
  • The root cause of iron storage disease is difficult to determine, even with the comprehensive necropsy results—this is consistent with how the disease presents in humans and other species. Emerging studies regarding human cases do suggest genetic links to the disease. The Aquarium followed recommendations outlined in the limited documentation that exists around effective treatments for the disease, including regular phlebotomies and maintaining a diet heavy in C17 fats and lower in naturally-occurring iron.
  • The Aquarium team will continue their already thorough procedural studies to rule out any environmental factors that may have contributed to Maya's acute decline.