NEW ORLEANS -- Since the oil crisis began, concerns have mounted about the toxic crude's possible impact on marine life in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as coastal estuaries and marshes.
While studying spawning habits of blue crabs recently, researchers from Tulane University and the University of Southern Mississippi stumbled upon something very troubling.
"Orange blobs inside the larvae,” said Dr. Erin Grey, a marine biologist at Tulane. “We've never seen this before. Right now we know that there is a signature of hydrocarbons (in the larvae), so that would suggest that it's oil."
Grey said the research team found the orange blobs trapped between the infant crabs’ shells and inner skin.
It's especially concerning, she said, because of blue crab larvae's position on the food chain. Many different types of fish -- and even older crabs -- feed on the larvae.
"Because they're so important and sort of kind of low on the food chain, our worry is that the toxins might bio-accumulate,” Grey said. “As it moves up the food chain, the toxins become more concentrated."
That is, the toxins become more concentrated and contaminate other marine life.
Dr. Grey and her team stress, the findings are only preliminary.
They're running additional tests on Tulane's campus to get further confirmation that what they've found is actually oil.
If it is, linking that finding to the crude gushing from the Deepwater Horizon's well would be another challenge.
The timing of the findings, however, adds to their suspicions.
"It certainly has the makeup of oil. When we release it out of the crab, it floats right to the top just like oil should,” Grey said. “We've never seen it before, and I've talked to experts who have been looking at crab larvae for over 40 years and they're like, 'This looks new to us.'"
And considering the group only set out to study blue crabs, their findings raise questions about how the oil may be impacting other types of crustaceans or fish.
"My concern is -- not just for the blue crabs, but all the different species that have larvae that are floating out in the gulf -- is that they might be picking up things that are really, really toxic," Grey said. "This could be killing sort of all the larvae and juveniles of a lot of these species we like to eat."
The researchers point out – these are microscopic amounts of hyrdrocarbons found in tiny crab larvae, and do not represent an impact on seafood consumed by humans.