In nature, oil is a versatile killer. It smothers the tiny animals that make up a coral reef. It suffocates blades of marsh grass, cutting them off from air and sunlight. It clumps up a bird’s feathers, leaving it unable to fly. Then, trying to remove the oil, birds swallow it.
For now, scientists are seeing the worst effects only in one corner of the Louisiana coast.
But they’re concerned about what they’re not seeing — and worried that the impact on animals and plants will only get worse.
“Now that the stuff is really sort of coming ashore, it really is living up to its potential. It’s certainly breached the sort of outer defense system of Louisiana,” said James H. Cowan Jr., a professor at Louisiana State University. “It’s the very worst-case scenario, for things like birds and mammals.”
On Tuesday morning, Louisiana scientists ventured out here into Barataria Bay, looking for oil and oil-covered animals. They found both.
Near Isle Grande Terre, a brown pelican — the state bird — sat atop a piling, its chest and head feathers matted down with oil. As the boat approached, it flew away. But within seconds, the pelican alighted on a nearby rock. It was already too weak to fly long distances.
“It’s hard to capture a bird unless it’s totally oiled, or it’s dead,” said Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The official count of the spill so far: 377 birds, most dead, some captured alive. Dozens more turtles and dolphins have been found dead, but scientists are still conducting tests to determine how many of them died because of exposure to oil.
They say that this is a fraction of the total animals impacted. Some, like this pelican, are still strong enough to evade capture. Others might die at sea, or deep inside marshes, and might be eaten before any human spots them.