The BP oil spill may have been plugged, but Gulf ecosystems continue to struggle in the aftermath. According to the Guardian, the latest casualty might be one of the Gulf's smallest inhabitants, the delicate dwarf seahorse.
"We have very high levels of concern for this particular species because they have a narrower range," said University of Tampa biologist Heather Masonjones.
Seahorse habitat mostly includes seagrass and seagrass mats in shallower waters, which is where crude often collects. Complicating the crisis, dwarf seahorses are not good swimmers and can quickly become confined by surrounding oil.
Occasionally seagrass mats drift out into the deeper sea and seahorses hitch a ride, but these hardly make for suitable life rafts. Throughout the course of the oil spill, the mats actually become collection points for crude, and BP would often light them on fire to burn off the surface oil. Any seahorses clinging to life on the seagrass islands would have been torched alive.
Like many species of seahorse, dwarf seahorses mate for life and invest a lot of energy into raising only a few offspring. If these pair bonds are disrupted, then whole populations can disappear and may never recover. In fact, it has been estimated that the seagrass alone could take as many as five years to recover from the spill. That same time period represents three generations for dwarf seahorses.
Furthermore, seahorses are unique in that the male of the species is the one that carries the eggs. Researchers are concerned that chemical dispersants may adversely effect male seahorse reproduction cycles by disrupting their hormones.
The solution, claim concerned biologists, is to take special care to protect the seagrass instead of using it as a buffer zone.
"We are urging BP to continue to use booms in the cleanup to isolate the oil slicks. These can be skimmed, left to evaporate, or treated with biological agents like fertilizers, which promote the growth of micro-organisms that biodegrade oil," said Heather Koldewey, the associate director of Project Seahorse.