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Wildlife and the Oil Spill

May 23, 2010 — As more and more oil spills into the Gulf, the environmental damage has reached catastrophic levels say wildlife experts.

Wildlife experts monitoring the Gulf of Mexico oil spill believe the task is so daunting right now, that they're not sure of the fate of Florida manatees, birds, dolphins and coral reefs.

“The spills at this point are almost entirely from surface release or near-surface releases, ” said Roger Helm, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chief of the Division of Contaminants at a media conference on Saturday.

That's where the majority of scientific study has concentrated in the past. Scientists haven't determined if the wildlife deaths are directly related to the spill quite yet.

Turtle Populations

As of Friday, 186 sea turtles have been found dead in the Gulf or on shore.The number is higher than usual, but this could be because scientists are tracking the situation more carefully than usual. The tar balls in Louisiana and Alabama are a major concern as the turtles are known to eat them if they're curious or even just hungry.

Turtle nesting is particularly a big concern. Barbara Schroeder of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries National Sea Turtle Coordinator wonders if the problem could seriously impact nesting for adult female turtles.

18 dead dolphins have also been discovered -- but this number is normal. Scientists are conducting autopsies to determine whether the cause of the death in both the turtles and dolphins is oil-related.

Impact on Birds

The destruction to wildlife is becoming more visible every day. Two dead birds were brought into the Fort Jackson Rehabilitations Centre on Saturday. The Northern Gannet and Brown Pelican were found in the Grand Isle State Park, covered in oil. Officials said the birds will be frozen and will be tested to confirm the exact cause of death.

Dead birds are no surprises to scientists. They've already predicted a substantial number of birds will be oiled, along with near-shore fish and shrimp.

Greg Robertson, Research Scientist from Environment Canada explains why the oil is so threatening to birds.

“They're heavily insulated,”Robertson explains. “They plume to keep warm from the cold water, but unfortunately when oil contacts a bird's plumage, it breaks down the feather structure. The cold water can then seep into the plumage and contact the bird's sensitive skin. As a result, heat is taken away from the bird, which can lead to severe hypothermia.”

Marshlands, Reefs and Everglades

Meanwhile, the public beach in Grand Isle Friday was closed as thick blobs of oil washed ashore.

The already fragile marshlands along the coast are also taking a hit. Oil has soaked vegetation, water and even wildlife. After surveying the impact, National Wildlife Federation expert Mara Wood described the situation as 'unbelievable.' What's worse? The oil found so far is very thick and sticky and has adhered to all of the plant material.

There's also a major concern now how the oil will impact Florida's coral reefs and the Everglades. Wetlands Ecologist Stephen Davis believes, “the leak could eventually make it's way down to the Florida Keys (taken by the loop current) and make it's way into the Florida Bay and then up the coastline.”

Scientists have begun dubbing the oil disaster as a 'giant experiment in marine toxicology' and they're continuing to figure out how the spill will affect the food chain. The big question is, could the spill lead to a reduced reproductive capacity for some marine-life, leading to a reduction in certain species?

They may not know the specific impacts, but what is certain is that the food web will most definitely be affected by the spill.

Click here for the latest details on the containment effort.

You can also tune into The Weather Network on TV for current developments.

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