This Is Your Ocean On Drugs?

Here’s a story for everyone who has ever suspected there was something in the water in Portland (in other words, everyone).

It seems America’s love of caffeine is such that it’s starting to leak into the rest of the food cycle. A Portland State University graduate has been sampling ocean water at a number of locations on the Oregon coastline and has been finding traces of caffeine, tallying not with population density but with the movement of stormwater. In short: when the rain lashes down, we’re spiking the oceans with our favorite legal psychoactive drug. 

Cause for concern? Compared with the list of other environment-related things to worry about, this may be trifling – and since we’re deeply fascinated by the potential health benefits of caffeine in moderation, we’d be hypocrites to start banging our drums here. Or would we? Because until now we’ve been talking about the effect of caffeine on humans. While everyone currently has no idea how low doses of caffeine will affect marine life, we do know that it severely messes with spiders.

In 1995, NASA researchers dosed up common household spiders with a variety of drugs and left them to weave their webs. The ones “speeding” on benzadrine completed the job in record time but left enormous holes everywhere. The ones under the influence of marijuana did half the job and lost interest. And the one spinning on caffeine? Take a look (above right). It appears the spider was such a jittery mess that it lost the ability to plan ahead. Fascinating and disturbing – but at least it makes great tableware.

To repeat: nobody knows how caffeine will affect marine wildlife. However, tests suggest that the effects of caffeine are most pronounced in birds and mammals, less so in lower vertebrates and still less so in fish and amphibians. If we are indeed dosing up our offshore neighbors in miniscule amounts, let’s hope they’re designed to shrug it off.

Images: GOOD and Matt McGee.

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.