600-Plus Species at Risk From Deadly Gulf Oil Disaster

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600-Plus Species at Risk From Deadly Gulf Oil Disaster

By David Knowles on AOLNews.com

With oil from a destroyed rig gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at an estimated rate of 210,000 gallons per day, the effects on wildlife will almost certainly be profound.

The April 20 explosion of a BP rig killed 11 people and eventually led to the platform's sinking about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. But now the ensuing spill threatens 445 species of fish, 45 species of mammals, 32 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 134 species of birds, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries told AOL News. And when the massive oil slick makes landfall in Louisiana on Friday, it will hit 10 wildlife refuges or management areas, such as the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

"The challenge with this type of oil is it's going to float, and, depending on what the wind and waves do, it may stick around for a while," National Oceanic Atmospheric Association spokesman Tom Brosnan said at a news conference today. "And as you get closer to the shorelines, you tend to find richer life."

Here then, is a small sampling of animals that will be affected as the oil continues to spread.

Sea Creatures

Already a critically endangered species, the bluefin tuna comes to the Gulf of Mexico between April and June in order to spawn. Its eggs' viability would be plummet upon coming into contact with oil.

Mammals that must surface for air, such as the bottlenose dolphin and the sperm whale, are likely to encounter patches of floating oil in the process.

Bivalves like oysters will be especially sensitive to the spill. "Mainly that's because they can't move," Karen Foote, a marine biologist at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told AOL News.

Known as a "sea cow," the endangered West Indian manatee migrates along the Gulf Coast in search of warm water. Eating sea grass and other plants it finds in the shallows, the mammal may find its food sources contaminated when oil reaches the shoreline.
Like other endangered species, the West Indian Manatee may see its food supply dwindle when the spill reaches the Gulf shoreline.

The Gulf manhaden represents the third largest fishery in the United States. Because it is a filter feeder -- meaning it circulates water through its system in order to strain out food -- the oil poses a severe threat to its health, and also to the fish oil business it supports, the Telegraph reported.

Land Creatures

Several bird species frequent the gulf region, some stopping to lay eggs and others simply to feed. Along the Louisiana shoreline, for instance, 5 million migratory birds stop and nest in the network of coastal marshes each year. According to LiveScience, when oil coats a bird's feathers it is no longer able to repel water or trap air, resulting in the bird's death by hypothermia.

Louisiana's state bird, the brown pelican, is no longer on the endangered species list but has just begun its nesting season on the barrier islands.

As many as 96 species of migratory songbirds, such as warblers, buntings and swallows, make stops along the gulf shore on their annual journey from the United States to Central and South America, CBS News reported.

The brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, lays its eggs on the barrier islands where the oil spill is scheduled to arrive first.

Beach nesting birds, such as royal terns, sandpipers and snowy plovers, will be negatively impacted as tar balls begin rolling in.

Shore birds like the reddish egret, whose population is already in decline, rely on catching small fish in the shallows, the New York Times reported. If those fish don't survive as the oil advances, it's unlikely the egret will, either.

Reptiles

Both endangered species, the loggerhead turtle and the Kemp's Ridley turtle come to the gulf to feed beginning in May, and lay their eggs along the coast's beaches.

In addition, the endangered diamondback terrapin, which is found in the marshes of Alabama, may see its food supply compromised when the oil slick washes ashore.

Even the alligator, an animal that is not now in danger of extinction, may encounter a steep decline in the fish it feeds on in the brackish estuaries that border the gulf.