Washington: Researchers say that ‘sea snot’—sticky clumps of phytoplankton – have been caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The spill sparked an explosion of sticky clumps of organic matter, which may have temporarily wiped out the base of the food chain in the spill region by scouring all small life from the water column when they sank.
These particularly slimy flakes of "marine snow" are made up of tiny dead and living organic matter, according to Uta Passow at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
According to National Geographic News, when exposed to the oil spill, the stress caused the phytoplankton to produce a mucus-like substance.
"Everything they collide with in their path they collect and take with them," said Passow.
When Passow and colleagues tried to simulate the conditions in lab, one simulation found that month-old marine snow would have sunk to the seafloor relatively fast—sinking hundreds of yards a day, compared with an average marine-snow sinking rate of 115 feet (35 meters) a day.
That heft may also explain why Passow and colleagues are finding so much new sea snot in the seafloor traps that they check every 36 hours.
If the blizzard sinks en masse, the marine snow may have deprived fish larvae of a crucial food source—the phytoplankton itself. When fish larvae hatch, they have less than a day to find sustenance or they''ll starve, Passow noted. It may also have been toxic.
The addition of oil may cause the sea snot to coalesce into giant blobs called marine mucilage, which can grow more than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) long, according to Roberto Danovaro at Italy''s Polytechnic University of Marche.
Phytoplanktons produce more mucus when there''s more carbon and less nitrogen and phosphorus available—"exactly the case created by the oil spill," Danovaro said.
He added that if seas are consistently calm, mucilage could become very large and persist for months, allowing disease-causing bacteria to accumulate within the blobs, Danovaro said.
First Published: Saturday, September 25, 2010, 14:58