Scientists in the Gulf of Mexico are trying to determine the recent BP oil spill's impact on the area's ecosystem by testing an organism that's very low on the food chain: fish larvae. By testing menhaden, a type of fish prized for its oil that is also a major source of food for Gulf predators, scientists gain unique insight into how the oil seep has affected the chain of organisms in the region's waters.
The scientists lower nets all the way down into the Gulf in three precise, different locations. The nets collect the larvae that are then transferred to a lab at East Carolina University, where students test and document the fish's development.
Researchers are especially interested in how oil and chemicals from oil dispersants might affect a fish's genetic makeup. As the building blocks of the animal's development, genes are essential to the continuation of the species and hold clues about how future oil spills could affect fish and other Gulf wildlife.
The researchers at East Carolina University hope to publish the results of their study next summer and use them to help animals weather future man-made disasters that may occur in Gulf waters.
"The adults have probably been exposed much of the oil throughout the spill region, and if there's any oil still left around in the surface waters, then most likely their eggs and larvae, which are spawning right now, would be exposed." - Anthony Overton, East Carolina University
"It's possible that what we could do is be able to give some information back to the people who are deciding about the way to deal with oil spills, as to what the best approach might be. Should we use dispersants, what effect is that going to have?" - Ed Stellwag, East Carolina University
1. What are larvae?
2. What happened in the Gulf of Mexico last spring that had a major effect on its ecosystem?
3. What is research? Why is it important?
1. Why might it be more valuable for scientists to study larvae instead of adult fish species? Why do you think the East Carolina scientists decided to study the menhaden species in particular?
2. Why do you think scientists are studying the effects of oil on zebrafish alongside the menhaden fish? How would this help their experiment succeed?
3. If you were going to study the effects of a chemical or manmade disaster on a species in your area, what species would you study? Why?