Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fiddler Crabs as Pollution Markers after Oil Spills

Male crab showing off his one big arm to a female.Image via Wikipedia
In 1969, the oil barge Florida ran aground in Massachusetts, and it released approximately 200 thousand gallons of fuel into Cape Cods' Buzzards Bay. The spill killed many fish and lobsters, damaged sensitive oyster and clam beds, and devastated the local marshlands. Today, signs of the disaster remain.  In particular, fiddler crabs that normally burrow deep down, funneling oxygen to the roots of marsh grass, stop digging in Buzzard Bay when they reach oil , turn sideways, and burrow back to the surface. More than 40 years after the spill, they still act “drunk’’ from the oil they ingest, and predators can catch them more easily, research from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute shows.  Many think that the Deepwater Horizon event will play out differently than Buzzards Bay, perhaps involving more of a shorter-term "smothering" effect due to the light crude oil rather than the longer-term penetration and persistence of the diesel fuel.  But, no one knows.  We'll have to wait and see.  And fiddler crabs will be a major "canary in the coal mine."

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