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Question 3: What's happening to marine life?

Dave Martin / AP Photos

Just after the spill, researchers at the state-funded Dauphin Island Sea Lab off the Alabama coast stepped up their existing research to trawl for plankton along a 56-kilometer stretch south of the island; they will repeat the survey every 2 weeks. Another ongoing study based on rigs near the spill uses underwater, company-owned robots to monitor the squid, crustaceans, and fish that dwell 200 to 2400 meters below the surface. Besides tallying deaths, academic scientists will look for changes in the animals' daily feeding movements.

An ambitious new study is about to start thanks to a rapid-response grant from the National Science Foundation. Working from two or three university research vessels, scientists from several institutions will trace oil over the next 3 to 6 months as it moves through the food chain from single-celled algae to large fish such as tuna.

NOAA is monitoring the spill's effects on the more than 20 species of marine mammals, notably bottlenose dolphins and endangered sperm whales, and five species of endangered sea turtles that call the gulf home. Besides checking for oil in and on the bodies of six dolphins and more than 100 sea turtles collected so far, the agency is conducting aerial surveys to count the gulf's dolphins and whales, and taking biopsies of one bottle-nosed dolphin population to determine baseline levels of the animals' exposure to oil and other contaminants. Scientists will also monitor mammals acoustically with an underwater device.

[UPDATE 5/20 4:30PM] Dead zone. With the oil slick touching areas of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, scientists are wondering how these two complex systems will interact.ScienceInsider investigates.

[UPDATE 5/20 4:35PM] First Turtle Rescued. Michael Ziccardi, an Oiled Wildlife Care Network veterinarian advising the spill response in Louisiana, blogs that the first oiled turtle since the spill, a 2-pound Kemp's ridley, has been rescued and cleaned. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries found the turtle around 6 p.m. last night in heavy oil mousse, 33 nautical miles offshore.

Back to "Five Questions on the Spill." | Next question: What's happening to coastal ecosystems?

  1. What's happening with the oil?
  2. What's happening to life on the sea floor?
  3. What's happening to marine life?
  4. What's happening to coastal ecosystems?
  5. What's happening to fisheries?