Newswise — Paula Mikkelsen, a visiting fellow in Cornell University’s department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is an associate director of the Cornell-affiliated Paleontological Research Institution. Mikkelsen spent 20 years as a marine biologist at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Fla., and nearly 10 years as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History.

Mikkelsen says:

“Birds, sea turtles, and dolphins get most of the press, but all marine organisms in the Gulf of Mexico are threatened by the catastrophic oil spill. Every habitat – from intertidal oyster bars and mangroves to deepwater sand plains depend upon clean water to survive.

“Over 15,000 species of animals and plants are known to inhabit the Gulf of Mexico. Most of these live well below the surface, and so little attention has been paid to them by the clean-up efforts.

“The trouble is, there is no rescue or clean-up procedure for these organisms. Oil in the water or their food sources will kill them. It’s one, big, complex marine ecosystem out there – and when one part of it fails, others will follow.

“The Gulf of Mexico is intimately connected to South Florida by the Loop Current, a main source of larvae for America’s only living coral reefs off the Florida Keys – the third largest reef system in the world. Oil has already been detected in the Loop Current. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

“Is everything going to die? Probably not – marine animals and plants, despite their delicate nature, can and often do rebound from disasters such as this. But we can expect that there will be loss, and we can expect substantial, perhaps permanent, changes to the marine communities of the Gulf of Mexico and possibly the Florida Keys for a long time to come.”