GRAND ISLE, La.-- To the casual observer, the beaches along the Gulf Coast look back to normal, more than two years after oil marred the shoreline. In a new study, though, scientists sampled the sand and sediment, taking a closer look at the microorganisms there.
"You can think of them as forming the basis of any eco-system," said Holly Bik of the University of California, Davis, one of the study's lead researchers. "So, they really underpin all the food webs in ecosystems."
Bik personally collected samples from Grand Isle, looking for microbial life: tiny worms, crustaceans, amoebas and fungi, which are not visible to the naked eye, but crucial to the food chain. What she and other scientists discovered was a major shift.
"It was very low diversity, there were very few things living there," Bik said. "It looked like they represented a disturbed habitat."
Loyola University biology professor Dr. Jim Wee did not participate in the study, but looked at its findings. He said microorganisms are often overlooked because they can be harder to relate to.
"There was a the shift in the composition or the diversity," Dr. Wee said. "Because we don't ordinarily see them, we often don't take the microbial organisms as seriously as we should, in terms of how they affect our environment."
However, a change in microorganisms can have a huge effect. After the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska, a similar change in microorganisms came before a collapse in the herring fisheries there. Whether something similar could happen here is still not clear. UNO Biological Sciences Department Chair Dr. Wendy Schluchter did not take part in the study, but said this latest one shows more research is needed.
"Many people want to know-- what's the immediate effect? And obviously, we don't know," Dr. Schluchter said. "It's going to take a long time to study this-- to really understand what the effects are."
The scientists focused mainly on Grand Isle and Dauphin Island, Alabama in these results. They collected more samples from Louisiana to Florida, though, and additional research is ongoing at Auburn University. To see the current study, click here