It's hard to watch TV lately without seeing images of brown pelicans wearing blackish coats in the Gulf region of the Southeastern United States. The disastrous oil leak deep in the Gulf of Mexico has become a symbol of man's lack of respect for the Earth and its resources. You've no doubt heard about some of the animals affected by the spill. Dolphins, pelicans and sea turtles get all the press. But there are hundreds of animal species that are being affected by the disaster. We'll cover five of those lesser known animals on the next five pages.
Plankton will never win any "cutest sea life" awards, but that doesn't mean there aren't serious repercussions from the effects of the oil spill. The tiny animals (and plants) that make up plankton are the base of the oceanic food chain. And it's called a chain for good reason -- if one link on that chain is lost then it creates a gap that could affect the other links. Nobody knows quite what will ultimately happen, but the long term outlook on larger animals isn't good if the plankton is wiped out. Most fish larvae make plankton their first meal and larger sea life like whales also feed on these tiny organisms.
Florida has long taken up the mantel to "save the manatee." Bumper stickers and license plates in Florida have urged manatee conservation since the early 1980s. Breathing in the harmful hydrocarbons from the surface is one issue; swimming through water contaminated by oil is another. The sensitive eyes and mucous membranes manatees have are likely to be affected by the oil, and sadly the young manatee pups are most at risk. The long term effects of oily food may affect the manatees for years following the cleanup.
The least tern is the smallest tern that makes its nest along the beaches of the Gulf area. Sadly, the least tern is already endangered and the oil spill may end up wiping out the remaining population. This once plentiful bird now numbers somewhere around 2,000. Work is being done to try to save the least tern, with wildlife biologists helping to protect the vulnerable eggs from the crude oil. With a 40-day period required for hatching and nesting, the least tern faces long odds as a result of the oil spill.
Whales usually get more attention on the Pacific coast, but the Gulf of Mexico is home to as many as 2,000 sperm whales. They inhabit the deep waters near where the oil is gushing from the leak, and so far, at least one whale has been found dead. Results on the cause of death are still pending, but biologists believe that it's likely the oil spill was a factor. Even if it wasn't, the massive leak will no doubt ultimately have a deleterious effect on the giant sperm whale. The birth rate for sperm whales has declined in some populations in recent years, leaving it even more vulnerable as a species.
Jellyfish were some of the first casualties of the spill, with millions of dead them floating in the Gulf waters and washing up on shore. They may get a bad rap for stinging beachgoers, but jellyfish are some of the oldest known living things on the planet and they're important for many reasons -- one being that they serve as a valuable food source for some of the more beloved sea creatures like the sea turtle. Not only that, but scientists have isolated a jellyfish gene that actually aids in growing healthier sugarcane. And those are just a couple of the reasons why the jellyfish population is important.