Three dead sperm whales killed by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could put the small population native to the gulf in peril, and not only that, but endangered and 3 species of threatened sea turtles could face major population decimation as they breathe in toxic fumes and ingest crude oil.

One way to try to figure out what will happen to marine life in the vicinity of the recent oil spill is to study what has happened to these creatures after disasters in the past. Vast oil spills are rare, but there are natural disasters that can be examined. For instance, for marine iguanas living in the Galapagos Islands, an El Nino can be deadly. Some die from starvation while others survive. Scientists have long believed that the difference between life and death for the iguana depended on the animals’ ability to secrete the stress hormone corticosterone.

Under stressful conditions, corticosterone functions by controlling how the animal’s body expends energy during an emergency. It is similar to cortisol in humans and is associated with the “fight or flight” response to stress. But this hormone can be lethal if the if it lingers in the body too long. So we know that wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico will respond to the current oil spill. By secreting corticosterone to help them cope with the disaster, but we ALSO know that prolonged hormone production could make it even less likely for them to survive the crisis.

Biologist Michael Romero says, “As animals encounter the spill, they will have a robust release of corticosterone to help them cope with the consequences of the oil. However, those animals that can best turn off their corticosterone response once the initial danger from the oil has passed will probably be the most likely to survive.”

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