Will any animals benefit from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 8 2010 12:03 PM

 Is an Oil Spill Ever Good for Animals?

Worms love it.

Brown pelicans covered in oil from the Gulf spill. Click image to expand.
Brown pelicans covered in oil from the Gulf spill

The BP oil spill could take a major toll on the Gulf Coast's wildlife, say marine scientists. We're already seeing some evidence of die-offs (PDF) among marine mammals, birds, and sea turtles. Are there any species that might actually benefit from the disaster?

Yes. Scientists don't know what makes it so resilient to the health effects of oil, but the blood-red-colored bristle worm known as Capitella capitata seems able to survive in a polluted environment. Indeed, it thrives. The worm's natural predators—shrimp, fish, and crabs—start to die off after a spill, leaving room for what's called ecological succession: The population of one species grows to fill a gap left by damage to another.

At up to 10 centimeters in length and about the width of a human hair, Capitella capitata may seem like the oil spill's tiny grim reaper. In fact, it could help to restore the Gulf ecosystem. The animals burrow into the sea floor to feed on organic matter deposited there. This movement circulates new water into the sediments and addresses one of the major problems after an oil spill—the depletion of oxygen in the ocean by the hungry bacteria that are working to break down pollutants. By churning up mud at the bottom of the Gulf, the worms release and recycle pockets of anoxic water, which in turn allows sediment bacteria to degrade more oil. (The flourishing micro-organisms also serve as food for the bristle worms.) The ecological interplay between worms and bacteria paves the way for the return of other species. Bolstered by higher oxygen levels and more worms to eat, the populations of fish, crab, and shrimp begin to increase.

Capitella capitata is known as an indicator species, which means biologists rely on it to assess the condition of a particular environment. A large number of worms suggests poor water quality, but with the potential for improvement. For example, Capitella has been tracked in water near sewage outfalls, such as parts of Boston Harbor, as a way of assessing cleanup efforts. It's not yet clear whether Capitella numbers are increasing in the Gulf. Due to the extent of the cleanup—thousands of barrels of oil are still leaking into the ocean daily—it may be months before worm-tracking scientists have access to the sediment.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Adam G. Marsh of the University of Delaware, James Blake of the ENSR Marine and Coastal Center, John Fleeger of Louisiana State University, Judith Grassle of Rutgers University, Nancy Rabalais of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, and Mary Wicksten of Texas A&M.

Like  Slate  and the Explainer  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?