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How Animals are Affected by an Oil Spill

written by: Atula Gupta•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 5/20/2011

Of all the animals affected by an oil spill, marine animals are the most vulnerable. Read further to know how their life and that of other animals become threatened due to the disaster.

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    Effect of Oil Spill

    Oil spills are man-made disasters that may result in after effects which are life threatening to many living organisms, especially the marine animals. These spills occur due to various reasons, including careless leakages from oil tankers, deliberate dumping of crude oil by illegal dumpers who may not want to spend money on decomposing waste oil, and also natural disasters like hurricanes and storms that may lead to the oil tanker spilling oil into the oceans.

    Whatever may be the cause of the spill, the end result is highly damaging to the environment. The degree of damage may vary depending on various reasons such as;

    · The type of the oil that was spilled

    · Area of the spill

    · Wildlife present in the area

    · Time of the spill and whether it is during the migration time of certain animals.

    · Weather conditions during the spill

    Unfortunately, animals and birds are not equipped to know the dangers of an oil spill, and those living in the area may easily get attracted to the spill thinking of it as a source of food.

    From planktons, fishes, seaweeds, to large animals like sea birds, otters and whales, an oil spill can affect each and every living organism that lives in its vicinity. What becomes a larger threat is the mobility of the sea water and the oil it can slowly but steadily spread to larger areas, becoming lethal to many organisms over time.

    Here are a few animals affected by an oil spill and what damages it does to their lives,

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    Oil Coating

    marinephotobank Crude oil sticks to the bodies of animals and birds, coating their furs with a thick layer which can even become thicker with time. The coating may lead to;

    • Hypothermia in birds as the coat destroys the insulation and water proofing properties of their feathers.
    • As the birds try to deal with the sudden dip in body temperature they may loose weight.
    • Birds have difficulty in flying which may also make them easier prey.
    • Because of the added weight, the sea birds are not able to float as easily to remain buoyant on the surface. It may ultimately lead to their drowning.
    • Dehydration and starving in birds as they continue fighting the added weight and struggle with flying.


    • Adult fur seals have blubber that prevents them from hypothermia if coated with oil, but the pups of these seals are not equipped with the blubber and can suffer from hypothermia.
    • The oil may stick to the flippers of the seals which can make it more difficult to swim.
    • Seal pups and mothers rely on scents to identify each other. With the spill the odors are disguised, leading to rejection, abandonment and starvation of the pups.
    • The sensory hair around their mouth may get covered with oil, making it more difficult to eat.
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    Oil Ingestion

    · Oil ingested can cause stomach ulcers or bleeding, leading to the death of the animal.

    · Marine mammals and turtles who breathe droplets of oil, fumes or gas may get lung congestion, pneumonia, emphysema, and the oil can damage their air ways and lungs.

    · Damage to the eyes like conjunctivitis, ulcers or even blindness.

    · Damage to their immune system making the animal more vulnerable to bacterial and fungal infections.

    · Animals higher in the food chain may get poisoned after ingesting an animal that has oil residues in its tissues.

    · Adrenal tissue that regulates the bird’s blood pressure and concentration of fluids in its body may get damaged.

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    Long term Effects on the Environment

    IBRRC · Interference with breeding by damaging reproductive organs, changing bird behavior when sitting on their eggs, or causing them to lay lesser a number of eggs.

    · Damaging the skin, ear or nasal cavities.

    · Damage to red blood cells, organs and tissues.

    · Stress

    · Decrease in the thickness of the egg shells.

    · Irrevocable damage to estuaries, coral reefs, seagrass and mangrove habitats that are crucial breeding grounds for many fishes, turtles and crustaceans.

    · Poisoning of the young one through the mother when the young depends on the mother’s milk.

    · Interference with feeding of marine animals like baleen whales that skim the surface water and filter it.

    · Disturbances to nests, fish spawning grounds.

    · Significant reduction in the population of animals due to immediate deaths and breeding interferences. This may even lead to animal endangerment or extinction.

    · With species already at risk, hampering commercial fish stock and the livelihood of people who harvest them.

    · Affecting the migration routes of animals like turtles and make them endangered.

    · Effecting spawning season of sharks.

    · Oils and hydrocarbons may remain in coastal sediments for months and years, which can cause drastic breeding problems for oysters, turtles, etc.

    · Suspended in ocean water, the oil can slowly deplete the oxygen content of the water, posing a serious threat to a range of marine animals like plankton, mussels, clams, crabs, eels, jellyfish, shrimp and deep-sea corals.

    · Oil may seep into the habitat of coastal birds like herons, pelicans, egrets and can stay there for years causing complete habitat loss.

    Thus there are many animals affected by an oil spill that even on a minor scale can create irreparable damages to both environment and living organisms.

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    Image Credit

    IBRRC and marinephotobank via cc/Flickr

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