Planet Earth

From Marsh Grass to Manatees: The Next Wave of Life Endangered by BP's Oil

80beatsBy Andrew MosemanJun 21, 2010 4:10 PM

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smothered by BP's oil spill may be the symbols of sadness for the disaster in the Gulf, but they are, of course, far from the only animals affected. Marine scientists are watching other species for signs of danger. Whales Late last week, scientists spotted the first dead whale seen in the Gulf since the leak began gushing oil in April. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found a 25-foot-long sperm whale washed up, and now it is testing the sea creature for cause of death.

Brown pelicans

"While it is impossible to confirm whether exposure to oil was the cause of death, NOAA is reviewing whether factors such as ship strikes and entanglement can be eliminated,'' the agency said. Samples collected from this carcass will be stored until the Pisces returns to port on July 2, or possibly if another boat is sent to meet the Pisces. Full analysis of the samples will take several weeks [New Orleans Times-Picayune].

Manatees So far, it at least appears that manatees have been spared toxic exposure to the ever-growing oil spill. However, a science team hunkered down at Dauphin Island in Alabama—in the path of the oil—say their luck may not hold.

Until recently, biologists believed that manatees rarely ventured west of peninsular Florida, where, so far, no oil has appeared. But in 2007, Ruth Carmichael, who leads the Dauphin Island team, began documenting a relatively large summer migration of manatees to Mobile Bay, Ala. — leading them directly into and through the path of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak. From a couple of dozen to as many as 100 come to Mobile Bay for the summer, out of a total North American population of 5,000, she said [The New York Times].

The Little Guys Large animals produce devastating pictures during a disaster like the BP oil spill. But those large creatures rely on something far less visible to us—the small creatures and plants at the bottom of the food chain—and those might be the most vulnerable of all to the oil, according to ecologist John Caruso.

In particular, the cord and Spartina grasses that grow on the coast of Louisiana are crucial to the ecosystem and especially sensitive to the oil leak, Caruso said. These grasses form the foundation of the local food chain, and their root systems lessen the erosion of the small islands that protect inland Louisiana from hurricanes, Caruso said [LiveScience].

Coral We just don't know. There are deep water coral living more than 1,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf, but scientists at the moment can't say how they're doing. First, they haven't been able to go there. Second, they don't have a good model, according to Erik Cordes, who studied deep water coral in Australia.

"If this had happened on a shallow-water reef, there would be a lot more data to evaluate the impact," Cordes said. "We're kind of playing catch-up. We're trying to come up to speed very quickly on this" [Discovery News].

As for the oil leak itself: Late last week BP said its siphoning operation

was collecting in excess of 25,000 barrels of oil per day. There's still plenty they're not getting: The total flow is now between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day. As BP's relief wells approach their targets, the company says it will be bringing in more tankers to increase its capture capacity to 80,000 by using four ships and two separate pipes. If you want more fuel for anger, check out the lengthy investigation

in yesterday's New York Times about what BP, its contractors, and the government knew about the weakness of the blowout preventer and other failed systems. Recent Posts on the Gulf Oil Spill: 80beats: Obama's Speech on the Oil Spill: What Do You Think of His "Battle Plan"?

80beats: BP to Kevin Costner: We'll Take 32 of Your Oil Clean-up Machines

80beats: Should We Just Euthanize the Gulf's Oil-Soaked Birds?

80beats: Meet the Oil-Covered Pelicans, Symbols of the BP Oil Spill

80beats: Scientists Say Gulf Spill Is Way Worse Than Estimated. How’d We Get It So Wrong?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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