Tiny amount of oil damages seabird feathers, study finds

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Tiny amounts of crude oil on the surface of the water, less than one percent the thickness of a human hair, can damage the feathers of seabirds, a University College Cork (UCC) study findings.

Researchers from UCC’s Marine Ecology Group in Ireland have collected feathers from Manx shearwaters, a species of seabird considered threatened by oil pollution. The researchers examined the feathers to see how quickly the water would pass after exposure to increasing concentrations of oil. The feathers were also evaluated under high-powered microscopes to examine structural changes after contamination.

This study found that very thin oil sheens, between 0.1 and 3 micrometers thick, were sufficient to have a significant effect on feather structure and impacted waterproofing. Other studies have shown that seabirds exposed to oil are more likely to become waterlogged, cold, and less buoyant.

Unrefined oil, or crude oil, has been dumped into the sea in huge quantities due to disasters such as the Exxon Valdez and Sea Empress spills. It is also regularly released into the environment in moderate volumes due to mining and transportation activities. Oil pollution poses a significant threat to many already threatened seabird populations.

Emma Murphy, lead author of the study, said: “Chronic small-scale oil pollution is generally overlooked in the marine environment, despite being shown to have serious implications for physical fitness and survival of seabirds. This study looked at one species, but the results can be extended to other species that rely on waterproofing to stay healthy when at sea for long periods of time.

Even when oil is released in moderate volumes from extraction and transportation infrastructure, the oil can spread fairly quickly across the surface of the sea, and a fairly large area of ​​the sea can be covered in oil at potentially harmful concentrations. for seabirds.

– This press release was originally published on the University College Cork website

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