Since the catastrophic oil well explosion in Louisiana and subsequent BP oil spill, many of us have seen the grim site of animals dying or covered in oil on the news. While it can be difficult to think about animals dying and many of us would prefer not to think about the effects on wildlife of the BP oil spill, understanding how the oil spill is killing animals can help us understand why the BP oil spill will have long term environmental impacts.
Problems of Thermoregulation
There has been a heavy focus in the media on cleaning oil off of birds, and with good reason. Birds rely on their feathers and unique bone structure to properly regulate their body temperature, also known as thermoregulation. When birds are covered in oil, they cannot properly thermoregulate. This leads to two catastrophic effects: the death of the bird and the elimination of breeding. Birds who might otherwise be laying eggs who cannot regulate their body temperature will not breed. This means that, not only is the oil spill affecting the current generation of birds; it is taking a dramatic toll on future generations, especially since this oil spill has happened at the height of many birds’ breeding seasons.
Many marine mammals, particularly sea turtles, conduct some respiration through their skin. Turtles covered in oil are not being poisoned by the oil; they are being suffocated. Further, the long term effects on turtles being suffocated can be damaging even if the turtles are cleaned of oil. This means the turtles are unlikely to breed, and already threatened sea turtle populations may dwindle. Perhaps worst of all, marine wildlife does not have to be covered in oil to suffocate. The oxygen depletion in the water caused by the oil spill will kill countless animals who have not been covered in oil, and the effects of this could be long lasting and even permanent. Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there are still high concentrations of oil in Prince William Sound.If the same thing happens on the gulf coast, entire populations of animals may be completely eliminated.
Food Chain Toxicity
Environmental pollutants affect animals highest on the food chain the most. At each level of the food chain, an environmental toxin becomes more potent, and its nutritional quality is lowered. This means that even if animals lower on the food chain are not impacted, which is unlikley to begin with, animals higher on the food chain like whales and sharks will suffer long term impacts. There may be birth defects with their offspring and these animals may continue to die as a result of the oil spill long after the oil is cleaned up.