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Oil From BP Spill Has Officially Entered the Food Chain

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Researchers in Louisiana have found carbon from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the feathers and digestive tracts of seaside sparrows, proving for the first time that oil from the disastrous 2010 spill has entered the food chain.

Seaside sparrows show signs of BP Deepwater Horizon oil.

The study, published today in Environmental Research Letters, was conducted by scientists from Louisiana State University and Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. They found oil carbon signatures consistent with the Deepwater Horizon event in each of 10 birds tested.

These marsh-dwelling sparrows inhabit an area known to have been contaminated by the spill. Sediments from the site also tested positive for oil with the same fingerprints as that found in the tested birds.

The Deepwater Horizon accident followed the blowout of the wellhead at the Macondo oil rig and lasted for 87 days. Eleven workers died and 4.9 million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. It became the largest oil spill in U.S. history and was called the "worst environmental disaster the U.S. has faced" by White House Energy Adviser Carol Browner.

Oil sheens continued to be seen as much as three years after the event. The source of many were never discovered, but the containment dome failed and had to be plugged in 2012.

The immediate effects of such major spills are readily apparent. Oiled birds, dead fish and beaches covered in crude-oil sludge are often the first, horrific results. Disasters like Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon and the Santa Barbara oil spill damage critical wildlife habitat and destroy fisheries.

Longer-term, the pernicious oil enters the food chain.

The first signs of Deepwater Horizon oil were found in blue crab larvae in 2010. Oil likely entered the food chain through zooplankton. A 2012 study found traces of oil in zooplankton impacted by the BP oil spill.

BP oil spill led to baby dolphin deaths and diseases along the Gulf Coast.Truth Wire

By November 2010, nearly 7,000 dead animals had been collected. They included more than 6,100 birds along with 69 sea turtles, 100 dolphins and other mammals. A 2016 Oceana report concluded that 600,000 to 800,000 birds had died from the spill in the six years since.

In 2014, Dr. Paul Montagna of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi examined the deep-sea effects of the BP accident. He found severe impacts to life over nine square miles.

"The things that live on the bottom are very important for different reasons," Montagna explained. "They serve as food for higher trophic (food chain) levels, particularly for fish and other organisms that come and feed on the bottom sediments."

"Fish can consume phytoplankton poisoned by oil, fish eat fish and carry on the absorption of toxins, marine mammals and birds eat fish and could potentially carry on toxic properties to other predators," wrote wildlife biologist Jenna Bardroff in One Green Planet.

Seaside sparrows mostly eat insects, but also consume small crabs and the seeds of cordgrass and saltbush. The small birds can be prey to larger shore birds, snakes or mammals. In previous research, this same population of seaside sparrows was shown to have suffered reproduction problems in the years immediately following the oil spill.

There have been 11,700 reported oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico since Deepwater Horizon. Gulf oil producers lose one gallon of oil for every 20,000 they produce—and they produce 20 billion gallons of crude in the Gulf each year.

A drilling platform owned by Taylor Energy was damaged in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan and has been leaking oil ever since.

In May, Shell leaked 90,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf. The spill was reported by a helicopter pilot who was flying in the area. Monitoring the leak, SkyTruth called the concept of oil spill cleanup "nothing more than a convenient fantasy." They found that oil spill response vessels often arrive late and fail to fully recover the lost oil.

"Our government is indulging in a troubling fantasy that is eagerly abetted by the oil industry and pro-drilling politicians, dressing up deepwater offshore drilling as a safe operation so they can continue to rubber-stamp permit applications that contain laughable oil-spill response plans," SkyTruth concluded.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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