A drop of oil is enough to change the marine ecosystem

A study by University College Cork has revealed how the lives of some birds have been endangered by infinitesimal quantities of crude oil

Oil station
An oil station in the middle of the sea

To change irreparably the marine ecosystem we don't need an environmental disaster, but even just a tiny drop of oil is enough.

This is demonstrated by a research – with surprising results – conducted by the scholars of the Marine Ecology Group of theUniversity College Cork (UCC) in Ireland.

The study, published in the prestigious journal “Royal Society Open Science”, revealed for the first time how oil leaks into the sea, even if small, can endanger the survival of some seabirds which are in danger of extinction.

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albatross flies over the sea
An albatross flies over the sea

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A fundamental discovery that reveals not only the seriousness of the damage caused by oil, but also that an environmental disaster is not necessary to cause irreversible problems for the entire Marine ecosystem.

A drop of oil less than 1 percent of a hair thick can in fact make the feathers of seabirds permeable and lead to the risk of hypothermia.

In fact, birds spend a lot of time on the surface, floating in search of food or to rest.

For this reason they are particularly exposed to oil spills which, before sinking, settle on the surface of the water.

A danger for the feathers of seabirds which risk, in contact with oil, losing their fundamental characteristics of insulating and thermoregulating. Dirtied with crude oil, these animals have difficulty staying afloat and are unable to fly.

In a desperate attempt to clean the plumage, they also ingest the oil that reaches the kidneys and liver with devastating effects.

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sea ​​seen from above
An image of the sea seen from above

The made-in-Ireland quest that changed all things

The Irish researchers started from the study of the feathers of the Atlantic shearwater. It is a migratory seabird, very similar to the albatross, with a wingspan of ninety centimeters.

It nests in the summer months in the North Atlantic and Iceland areas, but also from the cliffs of Canada up to the Canary Islands. Later it also migrates for more than 20 thousand km, arriving in Chile, Brazil and Argentina.

During the migration period, therefore, it spends a lot of time in the open sea, for this very reason it is a bird considered essential for studies on the impact of pollution.

To test the plumage of these animals, the researchers filled some Petri dishes with sea water.

Inside them they then deposited drops of oil of different thicknesses. Finally they placed the feathers in each capsule. The results were immediately disconcerting.

In fact, after a short time even the very thin layers of petroleum had managed to make the feathers permeable and damage them.

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Oil: The site of University College Cork in Ireland
The seat of University College Cork in Ireland

0,1 micrometres, and goodbye waterproofing of the plumage…

The data speak for themselves: a drop of 3 micrometres of crude oil is enough to permanently compromise the plumage, while a drop of 0,1 micrometres makes them no longer permeable.

Not only that, the crude also increases the mass of the feathers, preventing the birds from staying afloat.

Therefore, huge spills are not needed to change the marine ecosystem forever, but a single, simple drop of crude oil can do it.

An awareness that prompts us to reflect on how delicate the marine balance is and how it is necessary to implement new actions to monitor them water conditions.

A fundamental problem if we think above all of the release - in moderate and regular volumes - of oil that takes place every day due to the transport activity and extraction.

Crude oil, once released, spreads rapidly, jeopardizing the survival of entire marine species.

Chronic pollution from small-scale crude oil is therefore an essential issue to be addressed and still little known, but which has important implications.

According to experts today almost two million square km of sea surface are covered with oil slicks.

Impressive numbers that give us an idea of ​​the seriousness of the situation and the need to raise the bar of attention, aiming on the one hand at innovation, on the other at constant monitoring of continuous and small spills.

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