Jul 21, 2010 4:21 PM by Melissa Canone
SUITLAND, Md. (AP) - The Smithsonian's vast collection of 137
million objects can come in handy at a time like this.
Scientists are beginning to determine the full impact of the oil
spill in the Gulf of Mexico and help guide its recovery. And they
will need to know about all the creatures that lived in the water
before the oil began gushing - from the commercial shrimp to rarely
seen giant squid and microorganisms.
That's where the Smithsonian comes in. The museum and research
complex in Washington holds the most complete set of invertebrate
species that live in the Gulf of Mexico.
The collection will serve as the scientific starting point for
what lived there before the spill to measure the unseen impact,
said Jonathan Coddington, head of research and collections at the
National Museum of Natural History.
"Everybody and their brother is going to be going out to the
Gulf and measuring stuff," Coddington said. "A lot of the
controversy is going to be about what the impact of the spill
This collection will be the baseline to determine that, he said,
surrounded by thousands of jars containing worms and other Gulf
creatures preserved in alcohol in a suburban Maryland warehouse.
The collection includes more than 333,000 containers of
invertebrates collected in the Gulf by the U.S. Minerals Management
Service over the past 30 years. Another 39,000 jars are partially
inventoried, though as many as 120,000 more haven't been
The spill, unleashed after a drilling rig leased by BP PLC
exploded April 20, has made the backlog an urgent priority,
Coddington said. It could cost $9 million to catch up all of the
Smithsonian's uncatalogued objects, he recently told a House panel.
The MMS conducted environmental surveys of the waters for years,
specifically to help predict the impact of future gas and oil
explorations. They began turning over the extensive collection to
the Smithsonian for cataloging and safekeeping in 1979.
Overall, the collection documents at least 4,000 marine
invertebrate species. Recent studies have shown the Gulf contains
roughly 15,000 species overall and perhaps another 3,000 species
On Wednesday, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough will testify
before a House science panel about the Smithsonian's resources and
research agenda. He has said the Gulf Coast invertebrates are a
prime example of how useful the collections are.
The most recent addition from the Gulf arrived last year, and
it's a research project in itself.
A 26-foot-long giant squid housed in a large metal coffin and
floating in alcohol was caught alive last year, which is rare.
Usually such squid are found floating dead on the ocean surface and
already rotting, said collections manager Cheryl Bright. So the
recent catch gave scientists a glimpse at the squid's body
chemistry, stomach contents and other data.
All that information can be compared to creatures found after
the oil spill.
Smithsonian scientists began putting the collection to use just
days after the oil spill, creating a digital map showing where each
specimen was collected from more than 5,700 sites in the Gulf. It
turns out some animals had been collected near the spill site.
One spot within 20 miles of the Deepwater Horizon well, for
example, is home to a deepwater coral that is a key reef-building
species, making it fundamental to other marine life. If that base
of the ecosystem is harmed, the domino effect on other species
could be devastating.
Other Gulf invertebrates and organisms serve as food for shrimp
and birds that humans see more often. So information from the
collection could help settle conflicts about what the BP spill is
"Shrimpers are going to say, 'We're just not seeing any big
shrimp any longer.' Then we'll go back to these collections and say
the average size of shrimp prior to the spill was this,"
Coddington said. "It will come out which ever way it comes out.
Facts help everybody."