Fungus thriving, worms waning, after BP oil spill

By John Upton

Fungus has a remarkable ability to thrive when the environment is stressed, allowing it to prey upon animals and plants when those forms of life are weakened. When the Permian period ended with a climate-changing bang 250 years ago, courtesy of volcanoes or perhaps a meteorite, soil fungus overwhelmed the world’s forests. Fungus diseases today are wiping out hundreds of species of frogs and millions of bats, not to mention entire forests.

New research shows that this mysterious kingdom of life is also thriving in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Scientists studied microscopic life in polluted shoreline sands around Alabama. They compared their findings to the results of surveys taken before the spill and found a sharp reduction in the number and diversity of microscopic animals, replaced by a spike in fungus.

“Our data suggest considerable (hidden) initial impacts across Gulf beaches may be ongoing,” the researchers report in a June 6 paper in the journal PLoS ONE, “despite the disappearance of visible surface oil in the region.”

Tiny sediment-faring worms known as nematodes were heavily affected. Scores of different types of nematodes used to make their homes along the gulf’s floor and it shorelines. But the researchers discovered that these benthic communities are now hospitable for just a handful of nematode species, mostly scavengers and predators.

The fungus that has taken over the oily sand is dominated by species that have a knack for breaking down hydrocarbons. Fungus is the world’s great decomposer and perhaps things will return to normal after the gulf’s new microscopic rulers have converted BP’s disgusting mess into something a little more palatable for the displaced members of the animal kingdom.

Research results

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