As millions of gallons of sticky black crude continue to gush out of a pipe in the Gulf of Mexico, we’re hearing a lot about how adorable animals like sea turtles, otters and dolphins are going to be affected. But while we love the cute animals, we don’t want to overlook the so-called redheaded step-children of the animal realm, either. They need just as much help as the fluffy furry ones, if not more because, according to a recent study, ugly animals are more likely to go extinct.
There’s a reason that manatees are called sea cows – they sort of resemble what the remains of a drowned cow might look like after a week or so. These bloated, bulbous animals may not be beauty queens, but they definitely deserve our attention and protection. Scientists don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when manatees start swimming through the oil, but they’re going to find out all too soon; a group of seven animals was spotted swimming along the coast of Destin, Florida.
Marsh Rice Rat
Few animals are more reviled than rats, even though these animals are technically incredibly similar to the ones we think are so dang cute (think fuzzy bunnies). The semi-aquatic Marsh Rice Rat resembles its landlubber cousins with its grayish-brown fur and long naked tail, but its need to dive underwater to forage for food like plants, snails and subterranean fungus will put it at risk as the oil seeps into the marshes of Gulf states like Louisiana.
The gulf sturgeon, a bizarre-looking relic of the dinosaur age, ended up on the Endangered Species list back in 1991 when its populations were nearly annihilated in the wild by centuries of demand for its meat and caviar. During the warmer months, Gulf Sturgeon spend their time in coastal rivers from Louisiana to Florida, but come cooler weather they’ll be back in the Gulf of Mexico, where they’re likely to face a battle for survival in the aftermath of the oil spill.
It’s got a spiky back, a powerful tail that could knock you to the ground in an instant and what seems like a sinister grin. But as imposing as the American Alligator may be to us, this animal is defenseless against the negative changes that are starting to occur in the marshes and wetlands that it calls home in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama.
Shrimping is big business in the Gulf of Mexico – or at least, it was. The fishing industry has been effectively shut down for obvious reasons, and even when the fisherman are allowed to start trawling again, consumers might not bite. While the oil may not have had a catastrophic effect on creepy-crawlies like shrimp that live along the sea floor on its own, BP’s toxic dispersants are actually spreading the contamination deeper into the water.
Because each of these bumpy mollusks breathe 50 to 100 gallons of water a day, “the oyster is to Louisiana’s estuaries what the fabled canary was to coal mine safety,” according to NOLA.com. So water that has been contaminated both by oil and by toxic dispersants will be deadly to the intertidal oyster reefs that grow along and just inside the coast of Louisiana. Ironically, the American Petroleum Institute once produced a video with a segment called “Lifeline to Oysters,” attempting to convince skeptical Gulf fishermen that oysters and offshore drilling get along just fine.
The critically endangered Smalltooth Sawfish has already seen its habitat shrink from a large portion of the Atlantic Ocean to a small area near the lower peninsula of Florida. But when the Loop Currrent, a strong flow of warm water in the Gulf, brings oil to the Florida Keys, this rare fish could be wiped out altogether.
They’re literally at the bottom of the food chain in the sea, but that doesn’t mean that curious-looking zooplankton aren’t important – they serve as sustenance for small animals like snails, shrimp and jellyfish, including some endangered species. These drifting organisms are just as much at risk from the oil spill as the larger animals whose suffering we can actually witness.
Images:Andrea Westmoreland, Wikimedia Commons (manatee, marsh rice rat, sturgeon, alligators, shrimp, oysters, smalltooth sawfish, plankton)