OIL SPILL CAUSE EXTINCTIONS?
June 13, 2010
Q: With the
current oil spill crisis in the Gulf, do you think the salt marsh snakes
may be threatened? I know they are uncommon to begin with, and the Atlantic
salt marsh snake is designated as threatened on the federal endangered
species list. Is something being done to protect these animals? Protecting
marine mammals and birds is obviously what most people view as important.
But I hope the snakes don't get forgotten. I am concerned for their future.
A: The salt marsh snake is a harmless watersnake species that inhabits
coastal regions from the Atlantic coast in Florida, through the Florida
Keys, to Brownsville, Tex. Typically restricted to brackish waters, the
snakes live in habitats that will be affected by the oil spill. Along
the Atlantic coast the species is officially protected in Volusia, Brevard,
and Indian River counties in Florida, including Merritt Island National
of salt marsh snakes will be in jeopardy not only because individual snakes
will be dealing directly with the oil but also because much of their prey,
which includes small brackish water and marine fish, may disappear in
localized areas. Hopefully, some of the populations will be only minimally
affected by the oil because they inhabit coastlines that are protected
by barrier islands or by ocean currents. By the time the oil reaches the
Atlantic side of Florida, if it does, it should be diluted enough so that
the salt marsh snakes in that area will not be significantly impacted.
As is often
the case with lower profile species such as most reptiles, amphibians,
and invertebrates, the salt marsh snake per se is not likely to get any
special attention with regard to its environmental welfare. It is unfortunate
that the only way certain kinds of environmental protection can be achieved
is through emotional appeal. People cringe at pictures of an egret, a
brown pelican, or a baby manatee dying in an oil slick, and many will
contribute to efforts to save such appealing animals.
But the far-reaching
environmental devastation caused by the BP oil spill will affect virtually
every species that relies on the coastal habitat, including species that
cannot capture media attention. We must hope that the detrimental effects
on the likable species are brought to everyone's attention and that the
environmental solutions for the birds, mammals, and other charismatic
megafauna will also be effective for the snakes through a form of trickle
down environmental stewardship.
Q: Will any
animals go extinct because of the Gulf oil spill?
A: I doubt
if any vertebrate species will go extinct as a consequence of the appalling
environmental disaster that has resulted from the BP oil rig explosion
and continuous underwater release of oil. However, the focus should be
on the populations of species that are affected rather than on the entire
species. Some populations will definitely be eliminated by oil pollution,
and the loss of individuals will be extensive.
No one knows
exactly how many millions of gallons of oil will ultimately be released
into the Gulf of Mexico and how much will reach the Atlantic. But the
amounts estimated so far are staggering and will cause untold damage to
coastal habitats, killing countless fish, birds, and marine invertebrates.
Without question, millions of individual animals of numerous species will
die. But all vertebrate species that inhabit the Louisiana Gulf Coast
are found in other areas where the oil is unlikely to reach. So no wildlife
species will be lost as a result of the spill.
however, sometimes happens as a cumulative effect of negative impacts,
including the gradual disappearance of local populations until too few
are left to propagate successfully. As the geographic range of the species
contracts, an environmental disaster, even a natural one such as a hurricane
or unexpected cold spell, can be the death knell for a species.
no wildlife species is likely to go extinct as a direct result of the
oil spill, jobs that depend on harvesting shrimp, oysters, and other shellfish
in the Gulf Coast region may indeed disappear completely.
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