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Tiny Amounts of Oil Can Harm Seabird Feathers - UCC Study

8th October 2022
Manx shearwater in flight over the Celtic Sea. Manx shearwaters are a seabird species at risk from oil pollution, due to spending most of their lives at sea, and much of that time on the water surface
Manx shearwater in flight over the Celtic Sea. Manx shearwaters are a seabird species at risk from oil pollution, due to spending most of their lives at sea, and much of that time on the water surface Credit: Jamie Darby, School of Biological Earth and Environmental Science, UCC

“Tiny” amounts of crude oil on the sea surface can damage seabird feathers, according to a University College Cork (UCC) study.

Oil less than one percent of the thickness of a hair can cause harm, researchers from UCC’s Marine Ecology Group state.

The team collected feathers from Manx shearwaters, a seabird species thought to be at-risk from oil pollution, and examined them to see how quickly water would pass through after exposure to increasing concentrations of oil.

Feathers were also assessed under high-powered microscopes to examine structural changes after contamination, they state.

Oil-damaged Manx shearwater feathers under a digital high-powered microscope. The microstructure within the feather clumps together after exposure to oil, letting water pass through more easily.Above and below: Oil-damaged Manx shearwater feathers under a digital high-powered microscope. The microstructure within the feather clumps together after exposure to oil, letting water pass through more easily. Photo: Dr Richard Unitt, School of Biological Earth and Environmental Science, UCC

The research found that really thin oil sheens, between 0.1 and 3 micrometres in thickness, were “enough to have a significant effect on feather structure and impacted waterproofing”.

Other studies have shown that seabirds exposed to oil are more likely to become waterlogged, cold, and less buoyant.

Environmental disasters such as the Exxon Valdez and Sea Empress spills have released unrefined oil, or crude oil, into the sea in huge volumes.

Crude oil is also routinely released into the environment in moderate volumes due to extraction and transport activity, the researchers note.

“Chronic small-scale oil pollution is commonly overlooked in the marine environment, though it has been shown to have serious implications for the fitness and survival of seabirds,” Emma Murphy, lead author of the study, says.

“This study examined one species, but the results can be extended to other species that rely on waterproofing to stay healthy when at sea for long periods,” she says.

The research is published in the journal Open Science.

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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Marine Wildlife Around Ireland One of the greatest memories of any day spent boating around the Irish coast is an encounter with marine wildlife.  It's a thrill for young and old to witness seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales right there in their own habitat. As boaters fortunate enough to have experienced it will testify even spotting a distant dorsal fin can be the highlight of any day afloat.  Was that a porpoise? Was it a whale? No matter how brief the glimpse it's a privilege to share the seas with Irish marine wildlife.

Thanks to the location of our beautiful little island, perched in the North Atlantic Ocean there appears to be no shortage of marine life to observe.

From whales to dolphins, seals, sharks and other ocean animals this page documents the most interesting accounts of marine wildlife around our shores. We're keen to receive your observations, your photos, links and youtube clips.

Boaters have a unique perspective and all those who go afloat, from inshore kayaking to offshore yacht racing that what they encounter can be of real value to specialist organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who compile a list of sightings and strandings. The IWDG knowledge base has increased over the past 21 years thanks in part at least to the observations of sailors, anglers, kayakers and boaters.

Thanks to the IWDG work we now know we share the seas with dozens of species who also call Ireland home. Here's the current list: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, beluga whale, blue whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Cuvier's beaked whale, false killer whale, fin whale, Gervais' beaked whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, minke whale, northern bottlenose whale, northern right whale, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, sei whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, True's beaked whale and white-beaked dolphin.

But as impressive as the species list is the IWDG believe there are still gaps in our knowledge. Next time you are out on the ocean waves keep a sharp look out!

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