Sensitivity of Birds and Mammals
An oil spill can harm birds and mammals by direct physical contact, toxic contamination, and destruction of food sources. One of the more difficult aspects of oil spill response is the rescue of oiled birds and mammals.
- Physical contact - When fur or feathers come into contact with oil, they get matted down. This matting causes fur and feathers to lose their insulating properties, placing animals at risk of freezing to death. As the complex structure of the feathers that allows birds to float becomes damaged, the risk of drowning increases for birds.
- Toxic contamination - Some species are susceptible to the toxic effects of inhaled oil. Oil vapors can cause damage to an animal's central nervous system, liver, and lungs. Animals are also at risk from ingesting oil, which can reduce the animal's ability to eat or digest its food by damaging cells in the intestinal tract. Some studies show that there can be long-term reproductive problems in animals that have been exposed to oil.
- Destruction of food resources - Even species that are not directly in contact with oil can be harmed by a spill. Predators that consume contaminated prey can be exposed to oil through ingestion. Because oil contamination gives fish and other animals unpleasant tastes and smells, predators will sometimes refuse to eat their prey and may begin to starve. Sometimes, a local population of prey organisms is destroyed, leaving no food resources for predators.