It has been just over two months since the first day of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred on April 20, 2010. In addition to the surface slick and tar balls washing ashore, a deep-water oil plume, being carried by a clockwise Loop Current, now threatens the third largest coral reef and marine ecosystem in the world and endangers thousands of invertebrate species indigenous to the Gulf and Florida Keys.
Although dozens of oily pelicans have become the iconic symbol for the recent disaster to hit the Gulf, thousands of forgotten creatures such as the spiny flower coral, yellow mussel, red heart urchin and the purple sea snail are equally under siege by the immeasurable plume of dense oil and dispersants. The Museum of the Earth recognizes the severity of the spill beyond the sandy beaches and below the murky surface.
World renowned malacologist, Dr. Paula Mikkelsen, associate director for science at the Paleontological Research Institution, remarks; “Our intent is not to say that the turtles and pelicans are not important. Our intent is to spread awareness of the high levels of biodiversity in the Gulf that are at risk in this devastating disaster. I hesitate to even suggest this because it’s so grim – there’s a lot we don’t know, as researchers and a society, about what’s going to happen. But it’s a much larger story than tar washing up on the beach.” Mikkelsen has specialized her professional research around the aquatic biodiversity of these now-threatened marine organisms.
Every habitat– from intertidal oyster bars and mangroves, to shallow seagrass beds, to coral reefs, deepwater sand plains, and pelagic Sargassum algae – includes thousands of species of invertebrates (coral, barnacles, snails, clams, starfish, sea urchins, sponges, and others) that depend upon clean water to survive. The deep-water oil plume looping through the Gulf, and heading toward the Florida Keys, is severely threatening aquatic biodiversity through contamination. The relationships of these marine ecosystems could soon be impacted, starting at the most basic levels, as the oxygen quality is compromised and the organisms’ food sources are killed. Many of these species are filter feeders, sieving food particles from the water, while others graze on algae or wait to feed on the filter feeders and grazers. All of these animals “breathe water,” extracting life-giving oxygen with their delicate gills. Oil in the water or their food sources will kill them, along with the algae and marine plants that they depend upon. The devastating reality is that there are no clean up efforts or rescue excursions that can help the eastern oysters, tube coral and other marine invertebrates that could be affected by the spill. As many as 15,000 species are indigenous to the Gulf and are threatened by this disaster.
Visit the Museum of the Earth to learn more about what is happening to the marine life in these affected areas and see some of the amazing specimens from the world famous PRI collection. Seeing the immaculate shells and coral on display creates immediacy to visitors and shatters apathy for these delicate, deep-water creatures. These heart breaking yet stunning displays should be a definite addition for your weekend “to do” list. On Saturday, July 10 at noon, Dr. Mikkelsen will be giving a Natural History at Noon lecture in the Museum’s classroom entitled "The Other 15,000: Marine Biodiversity at Risk in the Gulf of Mexico." For more information on the exhibit and the Museum’s Natural History at Noon lecture series please visit the Museum of the Earth online at www.museumoftheearth.org or call 607-273-6623 x33.