Updated 07/22/2010 07:43 PM
Whales face undersea oil clouds
While the massive oil spill may have been capped, the question remains: How much devastation will the pollution wreak on the ecosystem? Our Tamara Lindstrom spoke with a team of Cornell researchers about to find out how whales will fare in the murky water.
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ITHACA, N.Y. -- Scientists joke that it's the last thing a giant squid hears before it becomes lunch: The distinct clicking sound made by sperm whales as they hunt for food. A species that could run into trouble as it cruises the oil-polluted waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
"Necropsies done on stranded whales that wash up on beaches, it's unclear," said Dr. Aaron Rice, science director at Cornell University's Bioacoustics research Program. "Some oil deposits have been found in tissues, but you can also find whales that have died with no obvious result from oil. So the simple answer is, like everything else, we don't know what the impact is going to be."
That's why researchers at Cornell's Lab of Ornithology are looking into how the oil spill might affect some of the gulf's largest inhabitants and they're doing it with their ears.
"By listening in the ocean, we can figure out when are sperm whales there, when are Bryde's whales there, when are dolphins and other species of whales occurring in the area. And we can infer, are they occurring in impacted areas due to oil or have they completely left the area?" Rice said.
The research team is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to drop 22 microphones into the water, stretching from Texas all the way to Florida.
"And it's equipped with a couple of different hard discs for memory and a bunch of batteries to keep it going as long as possible," Rice said.
The Marine Autonomous Recording Units were designed and built at Cornell. They'll stay underwater for three months before a signal sends them back to the surface. The data collected will help paint a picture of the underwater mammals in the gulf, particularly sperm and Bryde's whales.
"Almost nothing is known about Bryde's whales. There isn't even enough information about the populations to be able to list them as endangered, not endangered, vulnerable or threatened," Rice said.
But it may be the smallest species that are impacted most by the oil.
"It's going to kill their food source," Rice said. "So what will happen is if the food is gone, the whales will have nothing to feed on. So either they can starve and die or they'll move out of the area."
Heading out on a search to find a better food source and bluer waters.
The team will have results about two months after the recorders surface. B.P. is picking up the tab for the project.