WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Studies on the health of sea otters in Alaska are helping scientists understand how an ecosystem responds to an environmental disaster.
Paul W. Snyder, a Purdue University veterinary pathologist, is studying the effects that the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound has had on the Alaskan sea otter population. He's part of a team investigating why the otter population in the spill area has not rebounded to pre-spill numbers.
Snyder and Alan Rebar, dean of Purdue's School of Veterinary Medicine and a veterinarian who has studied healthy and sick California sea otters, will present data on the otter studies today (Thursday, 11/20) in Albuquerque, N.M., at a meeting of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists.
"Trying to establish whether the lack of population recovery is a direct result of the spill or not is difficult," Snyder says. He says there are estimates that up to 15 percent of the almost 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled by the tanker may still be in the environment.
Snyder, an expert on animal immune systems, has studied the Alaskan sea otter's blood and tissues for the past two years. In the course of his field investigations, he developed a technique to determine the level in the otter of an enzyme that metabolizes aromatic hydrocarbons -- a biomarker that may indicate the level of exposure to oil.
Initial results indicate that otters living in the spill area have a higher level of this enzyme, called cytochrome P450, than control otters living in a nearby, non-spill area.
"Increased levels of this enzyme may be the result of continued exposure to low levels of oil, to other environmental contaminants, or to some yet to be determined factors," Snyder says. "We need to continue these studies to evaluate the significance of these findings."
Snyder works on the project with Rebar, one of the world's leading experts on the
clinical pathology of the sea otter, who was a
Contact: Paul Snyder