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lifeless sea turtle on beach A dead sea turtle lies on the beach in Pass Christian, MS, Sunday, May 2, 2010. Scientists are investigating to see if the cause of death for the animal is related to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Dave Martin/AP Images).

Animals in Danger as Huge Oil Spill Spreads

The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a threat to more than 400 species that make their homes on land and at sea

By Karen Kellaher and Laura Leigh Davidson | May 17 , 2010
Top: A brown pelican flies past oil booms off the coast of Louisiana on May 13, 2010. (Charlie Riedel/AP Images) Bottom: Bird rescue workers clean an oiled brown pelican also found off the Louisiana coast on May 4, 2010. (Paul Buck/epa/Corbis)
Top: A brown pelican flies past oil booms off the coast of Louisiana on May 13, 2010. (Charlie Riedel/AP Images) Bottom: Bird rescue workers clean an oiled brown pelican also found off the Louisiana coast on May 4, 2010. (Paul Buck/epa/Corbis)

The giant oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is continuing to spread, washing onto the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Animal rescue workers have begun finding and treating area wildlife injured by the sticky, smelly substance that has invaded their natural habitats.

More than 200,000 gallons of oil a day have been gushing into the Gulf since an oil rig exploded on April 20. Some scientists think it could be much more. The oil is coming from an underwater pipe that was badly damaged when the rig above it exploded.

World of Wildlife

More than 400 species of wildlife make their homes on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the birds and fish are rare, and some are even endangered.

Here are a few of species that may be harmed or killed if they come into contact with the oil slick.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles

Kemp's Ridley sea turtles are on the endangered species list. Since the oil spill, at least 30 have been found dead on Gulf Coast beaches.

At this time of year, female turtles nest on beaches in Texas and Mexico. Males look for blue crabs and other food in the Gulf of Mexico. Experts worry that the oil spill could wipe out the blue crab population, which could in turn cause Kemp's Ridley turtles to starve. They also worry that the oil will reach the nesting areas and harm the baby turtles.

Brown Pelicans

Until 2009, brown pelicans were on the endangered species list. Now experts fear the effects of the oil slick may put them on the list again.

Right now, the pelicans are building nests and laying eggs on Breton Island and other areas in Louisiana as well as parts of Mississippi. The oil slick has already hit Breton Island, and a number of pelicans have been found covered in oil. Oil-soaked birds cannot fly, stay afloat, or care for their babies.

Dolphins and Sperm Whales

For dolphins, spring is the time for calving, or giving birth to babies. Wildlife experts say that about 5,000 bottlenose dolphins are now calving in the shallow waters along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. They are in the path of the oil slick.

Because they are mammals, dolphins need to come up for air. Adult dolphins and their calves may be harmed if they inhale or swallow the thick, floating oil when they surface.

Like dolphins, whales are mammals too. They must also come to the surface to breathe. In addition to the risk from the floating oil and its fumes, whales and dolphins can get serious skin and eye infections from the toxic, sticky oil.

Bluefin Tuna

Endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna swim all over the Atlantic Ocean. But every April and May, they head to the warm Gulf of Mexico to spawn, or lay eggs.

One favorite spawning spot is where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. Bluefin tuna eggs are fragile. When the oil slick reaches this area, many of the eggs may not hatch. That will mean fewer tuna babies, and further dwindling of the bluefin population.

Shrimp, Oysters, and Other Shellfish

Unlike fish, which have fins, shrimp, oysters, and other shellfish are mainly stationary, meaning they mostly stay in the same place. They can't swim away to escape from the oil slick. The oil is poisonous to adult shellfish that swallow it. Oil also kills shellfish larvae, or babies, and could wipe out the next generation of the water dwellers.

MAP IT OUT

map tout  Use this map skill activity (and what you learned in this story) to find out more about where these animals live and why they are in danger from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Download it here!

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