Small Plants, Animals Show Signs of Marsh Recovery After Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster

An oiled Louisiana marsh shoreline as it appeared in the summer of 2011. (Photo from Linda Hooper-Bui)

(Click to enlarge) An oiled Louisiana marsh shoreline as it appeared in the summer of 2011. (Photo from Linda Hooper-Bui)

As marsh plants recover from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Louisiana, so have the tiny plants and animals living in the soil, according to a new study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series.

(From The Advocate / by Amy Wold) — But, not everything is back to normal following the 2010 disaster.

Researchers, who wanted to get a sense of how the marsh would recover from the largest oil spill in U.S. history, found that even in oiled areas that initially showed much lower numbers of soil organisms and plant life, plants recovered followed by the animals.

“The little critters are responding to the plants. They’re following what the plants are doing,” said John Fleeger, professor emeritus in LSU’s Department of Biological Sciences and lead author of the recently published article. “It’s really gratifying to see how resilient the marsh is.”

The years of study took place in the northern part of Barataria Bay. Researchers, including several from LSU, sampled 21 sites over time, studying an equal number of heavily oiled, moderately oiled and non-oiled sites.

The plants help with the recovery of the small organisms by providing shade, reducing the flow of water and providing a source of food.

Since these tiny plants and animals live in the soil and form a base for the coastal marsh food web, it’s possible to use them as an indicator of marsh health.

In most places, the marsh grass was recovering within two to three years to a point where they matched the growth in test areas where oil was not found.

Moderately oiled sites had about 1.5 times more plants and tiny animals than sites with no oil during the first two to three years before leveling out. Perhaps some plants didn’t recover as quickly so the marsh grass took up the slack, or the oil stressed the plants and the plants compensated by growing faster.

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