Jars of dead sea creatures hold key to Gulf's future

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Storage shelves at the Smithsonian
Image caption,
The collection includes jars of crabs, shrimp, worms and giant squid

On the outskirts of Washington DC, a massive warehouse filled with some of the nation's most important scientific collections sits surrounded by high fences and tight security.

It belongs to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and it's the starting point for scientists assessing the impact of the BP oil spill.

Up to half a million samples of invertebrates taken from the Gulf of Mexico are stored in jars that line row upon row of shelves. Spanning three decades, the collection is so large that many of the creatures have yet to be properly catalogued.

"In order to measure the effects of the spill, you have to know what the ecosystem was like before it happened," says Jonathan Coddington, head of science and collections at the museum.

Image caption,
Changes to the Giganteus bathynomus could indicate other species are struggling

"This collection will provide the data upon which future decisions will be made."

The collection includes crabs and shrimp, worms, sea urchins, coral and giant squids - the largest invertebrate known to man. Together, they provide a picture of how different species interact with their environment.

Of particular importance is the Giganteus bathynomus, or giant marine isopod, which looks like an armour-plated beetle. It lives off dead flesh but also hunts other animals and is the ocean equivalent of a wild dog or big cat.

"The ecosystem is probably best assessed by looking at the top predators, those at the top of the food chain," Mr Coddington says.

"We'll want to know if they're still there, and if they are, are there as many as there were before the spill?"

Any change to the Giganteus bathynomus could indicate other species are struggling to survive.

But Mr Coddington expects much of the future research to be driven by commercial interests.

Fishermen may report that supplies of shrimp have dwindled or that they have become smaller. By comparing future stocks to those in the collection, scientists will be able to give accurate measurements that may be able to help settle insurance claims. They'll also be able to determine whether pollution in other seafood has increased.

And because every oil slick has its own unique hydrocarbon signature, trace quantities can be detected many miles away from the source.

The BP oil spill has been described as the worst environmental disaster in US history.

But when government researchers began collecting samples from the Gulf in 1979, they discovered that whole ecosystems actually depend on naturally occurring oil and gas for survival.

Image caption,
"We're just starting to scratch the surface of what's down there," says Dr Martha Nizinski

Known as chemosynthetic communities, bacteria convert chemicals into sugar that enable worms and other complex organisms to thrive. Some species can live up to 250 years.

"It borders on science fiction," says Dr Alan Thornhill, science advisor to the director of the government's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

"It was thought that unless you had light, life could not exist. But we've discovered these communities where there is no sunlight, 10,000 feet below the surface, surviving on things we thought were toxic.

"They've been adapting to these natural seepages of oil for millions of years. Whether they can adapt to the current spill, we don't yet know, but they could be very resilient because they are used to such harsh environments."

The cold seeps, as they're called, are just one of the diverse habitats found in the Gulf of Mexico. The ocean also consists of marshland, mud bottoms, coral reefs and unique environments supported by the decaying carcasses of whales, known as whale falls.

"We know a lot about some parts of the Gulf, but with some of these deepwater habitats, we're just starting to scratch the surface of what's down there," says Dr Martha Nizinski of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"In the early days of exploration and collecting, it was a matter of dragging a trawl along the bottom. Now there is better technology enabling scientists to explore further and discover new species."

Roughly 15,000 different species have been identified in the Gulf of Mexico and scientists believe about 2,000 more remain to be discovered.

Many of those could be found soon, as research intensifies in the wake of the BP spill.

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