BP grant funds LSU AgCenter wildlife research

Richard Bogren, Hooper-Bui, Linda M., Stouffer, Philip C., La Peyre, Jerome F., Taylor, Sabrina S

News Release Distributed 09/20/11

Researchers from the LSU AgCenter are participating in a three-year, $12.2 million grant through the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) to evaluate the effects of the 2010 Macondo oil spill on coastal ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico.

The AgCenter’s share is nearly $2 million that will be used to fund researchers looking at coastal insects, birds and oysters, according to Linda Hooper-Bùi, lead researcher for the AgCenter group.

The funds are from a 10-year, $500 million academic research fund established by BP as a result of the spill.

“We’re looking at the ecosystem-level effects of stressors in salt marshes that fringe the Gulf of Mexico and on beaches and dunes from Texas to the Florida panhandle,” Hooper-Bùi said. The researchers have established a line of experimental plots, called transects, in marshes, beaches and dunes – some of which have been covered in oil and others that were spared.

Hooper-Bùi, an entomologist, is collecting insects and spiders and comparing those from oiled and non-oiled sites.

“We’ll collect insects and spiders, clip grass to see what’s living inside their hollow stems, and see how the ecosystem responds to stressors – oil, dispersants, human activity, fresh water diversions and other things,” she said.

“Insects are good indicators – signals – of stress,” she said. “They can be food for frogs, fish and birds. We’re asking the insects to tell us about the oil’s impact on the food web.”

In another aspect of the study, Sabrina Taylor and Philip Stouffer in the LSU AgCenter School of Renewable Resources are collecting and analyzing feathers from seaside sparrows to see how the oil spill affected them.

The seaside sparrow lives only in the band of salt marshes along the Gulf Coast and may be exposed to oil, Stouffer said.

Because they aren’t aquatic birds that don’t swim or dive in water, seaside sparrows’ exposure to oil would have come from incidental contact on the shore or from eating oil or bugs and other creatures that have oil in their systems, Taylor said.

The researchers will use DNA markers to look at how far the birds travel along the coast to discover if they move in and out of oil-affected areas, and they’ll look at carbon-14 to determine if the birds have ingested oil.

“C-14 is an isotope used in carbon dating,” Taylor said. Oil that’s been underground for thousands of years won’t have any C-14 – it will have degraded.

“Low levels of C-14 will indicate if the birds have replaced the C-14 in their systems with older carbon that would have come from oil,” she said. “We want to know if C-14 moves up the food web.”

Taylor and Stouffer also will be looking at a gene that is active in the presence of pollutants called PAHs – or polycyclic hydrocarbons – some of which are carcinogenic. Gene activity indicates oil is present.

“It’s a comprehensive project,” Stouffer said.

Jerome La Peyre in the LSU AgCenter Department of Veterinary Science and Ken Brown in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences are looking at oil’s effects on the health and production of oysters.

“We’re looking at occurrences of pathologies and evaluating the physiological and immunological responses of oysters to oil exposure,” La Peyre said. His project is a continuation of earlier research that was funded by Louisiana Sea Grant.

Oysters, like mussels, have been used as sentinel animals to monitor pollutants and contaminants around the world because they’re filter feeders, La Peyre said. They accumulate pollutants, and they don’t move.

La Peyre is collecting oysters from different areas of the coast, including those contaminated by the Macondo oil spill as well as areas that were spared. In addition, he has placed hatchery-raised oysters, which are genetically uniform, along the coast to evaluate their responses to various environmental stressors.

“This is an extremely complicated, long-term project that will be a definitive study of ecosystem change,” Hooper-Bùi said. And although BP is funding the research, Hooper-Bùi stressed that the company will not influence the results.

Rick Bogren
9/20/2011 6:11:24 PM
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