Gulf oil spill pollutants found in pelicans migrating to Minnesota

Pelicans in Minnesota show traces of the Gulf oil spill.

Pelicans in Minnesota show traces of the Gulf oil spill.

Originally published on TwinCities.com

By Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio

Pollutants from the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago are showing up in Minnesota birds that migrate to the gulf.

Researchers for the state Department of Natural Resources have found evidence of petroleum compounds and the chemical used to clean up the oil in the eggs of pelicans nesting in Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio reports.

Scientists are looking for pollutants on a western Minnesota lake that is home to the largest colony of American white pelicans in North America. About 34,000 adult pelicans will raise some 17,000 chicks this year on islands in Marsh Lake.

The area is a perfect place to look for oil spill effects. Most of the birds spend winters in the Gulf of Mexico, from Cuba to Texas. Young pelicans spend a full year on the gulf before they start breeding.

Pollutants inside the eggs could be a big problem, said Mark Clark, an ecologist at North Dakota State University who studies pelican eggs. Clark is helping DNR researchers look for oil-related contaminants.

Pelicans traveling from the Gulf to Minnesota reveal traces of oil.“Even if they’re present in small amounts they may have a large impact on the development (of pelican chicks),” he said.

As Clark and researcher Jeff Dimatteo stepped from a boat onto the largest island, thousands of gulls that also nest there protested the intrusion.

The scientists stepped cautiously among the pelican, gull and cormorant nests that cover the ground.

“The first question is, ‘Well, are the contaminants there?’ and the next step is, ‘What do they do?’ ” Clark said.

Scientists are most concerned about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons known to cause cancer and birth defects in animals. The other contaminant they’re testing for is Corexit, a dispersant used to break up oil slicks on the water that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contains cancer-causing chemicals and endocrine-disrupting compounds. Endocrine disruptors can disrupt the hormone balance and affect embryo development.

Clark has collected dozens of unhatched eggs to be tested for petroleum compounds and the chemical dispersant used to break up oil slicks.

Pelicans are big birds — a bit larger than a Canada goose. They grudgingly fly off their nests at the researchers’ approach, exposing eggs or recently hatched naked chicks.

The parents watch carefully from a distance as Dimatteo, a graduate student at North Dakota State University, locates chicks he had tagged earlier that he is tracking. After he measures and weighs them, the scientists quickly gather their data and leave. The birds grunt and grumble as they settle back on the nests.

If pelicans are bothered too much, they’ve been known to abandon colonies…

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