Until now, the story of the worst local oil spill in decades has been told by gut-wrenching images oil-soaked birds, dying fish and fouled wetlands. However, these images reveal just part of the story, researchers say.
Although much of the public’s attention has focused on what may happen to future generations of whales, porpoises, seals, sea turtles and migratory birds, the emphasis of many researchers now has shifted toward the minuscule and mysterious ecosystem that scientists call the microbiome.
It is a vast menagerie of small and microscopic organisms that comprise the foundation of the food web in coastal marine ecosystems. It starts with zooplankton adrift in turgid currents and bacterial colonies in mudflats, rock crevices and canopies of kelp and meadows of eel grass undulating in the tidal surges. Then come single-celled animals that feed on the colonies, and the larger predators that in turn feed on them.
Now, in laboratories from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to UC Irvine, the big question is this: What were the impacts on viruses, bacteria, fungi, algae spores, zooplankton, fish eggs and fish larvae less than a quarter inch in length?
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