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Bio professor studies effects of BP oil spill

By Tim McGowan
On June 1, 2011

Last April, the world watched in horror as one of the longest and biggest oil spills unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, one year later, scientists are beginning to observe the long-term effects on the ecosystem, thanks to a $10 million grant from BP.

One of these scientists will be UCF biology professor Graham Worthy. A member of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, Worthy joins 26 other Florida scientists to study the damage done.

However, Worthy believes the lack of prior research in the area will make comparison difficult, to say the least.

"The investment of research dollars and research effort into the Gulf of Mexico has been horrendous over the years," Worthy said. "More money has been spent in Chesapeake Bay than the entire Gulf of Mexico, so our ability to interpret the effects of the oil spill is really hampered because we had no idea what was there before." Worthy presented his initial findings on Thursday, May 26, at UCF's Fairwinds Alumni Center.

Worthy and his team focused their research on the recent beachings of several bottlenose dolphins in the Choctawhatchee Bay area near Pensacola. Since January, 153 bottlenose dolphin carcasses have washed up along Gulf shores. Of those, 65 were newborn, infants, stillborn or born prematurely.

Unlike the other research teams though, Worthy's findings include pre-spill data. His team began researching dolphins in that area in 2006 after a red-tide related incident left 50 dolphins dead in 2005. "What that has allowed us to do is to have pre-spill and post-spill data and that has been critical," Worthy said.

Worthy claims that the initial idea came from Steve Shippee, a Ph.D. student who has been working in Worthy's lab for some time now. Shippee began studying the bottlenose communities in the Choctawhatchee Bay estuary in 2006 as a component of his dissertation project.

"I originally grew up in this area and have had a lifelong desire to conduct a research study on the dolphins in this bay," Shippee said.

After the spill, Shippee felt it made perfect sense to also include the impact of the oil spill on the dolphins in the area to his dissertation, since he already had previous data.

At first, Shippee was working alone up in the Panhandle, but once the funding that was needed came into the picture, he began scrambling for assistants and other required help. "We already had the mechanisms in place to conduct the study, but we needed to bring in other collaborators to help with tissue sampling and processing, and that required preparing a research proposal, juggling schedules and acquiring materials," Shippee said.

Once everything was organized though, Shippee and his team began using a method called mark-recapture estimation, which involves approaching groups of dolphins in a small boat and taking high-resolution photographs of their fins and flanks to be used for identification of individuals.

"Dolphins develop scars and scrapes as they mature that serve as permanent ‘marks.' By analyzing the photos, I am able to recognize individuals and observe frequency of re-sighting over time, which I then use to establish residency and movement patterns around the connected parts of the estuaries," Shippee said.

Worthy found this most useful, since it would be impossible to go out and count every dolphin in the area. This method also allowed them to see which dolphins were giving birth at the time. Since the oil spill occurred during the breeding season, Worthy is interested in seeing how this will effect the mortality rate of infants.

Over the winter, Shippee witnessed several infant corpses washing up to shore so the concern has grown. Worthy began looking at the diet of the dolphins in the area to see whether or not their diet could possibly contribute to these infant deaths.

"The idea is you are what you eat," Worthy said. "Using this approach, I can use a sample of a fish, a sample of the dolphin and figure out what their diet consists of."

Despite all their research though, Worthy still finds it hard to truly estimate just how many dolphins have died in the Bay Area, since dolphins who live closer to shore are more likely wash up on land. For now, Worthy and Shippee will have to simply wait and see.

"It's not possible to determine the ‘long-term' impacts in this short of a time period," Shippee said. "[It] will require another several seasons to fully appreciate all the possible things that might have occurred in the ecosystem that affects the food-web and upper level predators like dolphins."

They are also hoping that interest will continue in their studies and funding will continue as well.

"My initial reaction to the spill was that it was going to be an ecological disaster," Worthy said. "I think that will still ultimately prove to be true, but the effects are going to be more subtle than oiled animals washing up on a beach."

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