Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Oil: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Oil: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Oil: such a simple word, such a basic substance. We cook with it, eat it, bathe with it, use it as fuel. It heats our homes, powers our cars: in short, it allows modern life as we know it to carry on. Think of the loveliness of an essential oil, scented by the flower or fruit from which it was extracted; olive oil, that sacred golden substance that graces the finest plates and palettes. Crude oil, motor oil, ‘edible oil products’, sesame oil, canola oil, peanut oil, animal-based oils: oil is ubiquitous throughout our society. Whatever you eat, whatever you wash yourself with, whatever you use to pretty yourself up, whatever mode of transportation you use, you are participating in the culture of oil. You can’t avoid it; the stuff is just so darn useful and has so many applications.

There aren’t many things that spark debate as readily as oil, its uses and abuses. You will no doubt find people on each end of the spectrum of the oil question: those decidedly for and those decidedly against its use. This article is not meant to address the merits, or lack thereof, of oil. Rather, it is intended to give you an idea of what happens when oils, even the seemingly benign varieties, make their way from their point of primary use into the environment. The full array of effects on everything from soil nutrient dynamics to ecosystem productivity is astounding, and merits a several volume, must-read book for those in the oil-hungry industrialised world.

But even gaining a snippet of insight into what happens to wildlife affected by oil is useful and important. This is particularly true for those of us who think that problems only arise for wildlife during events such as the Exxon Valdez spill, in which huge amounts of oil impacted thousands of wild animals. Fascinating as it is sad, the truth of the matter is that wildlife are oiled in our communities every day. And the effects of such oiling can be just as severe for wild animals impacted by an oily puddle on the driveway as for those caught in a more newsworthy large scale spill.

Last fall’s oil release into an east Toronto creek affected birds, mammals and other taxa in the riparian ecosystem. Research into this event demonstrated that relatively small scale spills, while clearly more limited in scope than those of Exxon magnitude, are far more common, occur daily in many communities, and receive far less attention. Think of the vat of cooking oil left out back behind your favourite greasy spoon. What about that puddle in the driveway, shining from the oil leaking out of that old lemon? In investigating this topic, it quickly became clear that oil spills occur on a regular basis. Small-scale though many events may be, in distribution and sheer number they rival the bigger spills in overall impact on the health of wildlife and the environment. Ontario’s hydro generation company alone reports hundreds and hundreds of spills every year. Each of these ‘releases’ affects wildlife in the ecosystems into which oil makes its way.

How exactly are wild animals affected by oil in the environment? There are two primary ways in which wildlife is impacted by oil releases. Firstly, the oil products in which animals usually find themselves covered are often composed at least partially of toxic substances. As wild animals attempt to clean themselves of the oily substance coating their bodies, they cannot help but ingest some of this oily matter. Such ingestion can lead to illness or death caused directly from toxins.

The second way in which wildlife is affected by oiling has to do with the mechanism by which they stay warm. For aquatic birds such as mergansers, ducks or loons, or semi-aquatic mammals such as otters, river martens, muskrats or beavers, the quality of their waterproofing determines how well their bodies are protected from cold winter water. Like us, these animals are endothermic, meaning that they rely on ‘internal’ sources of heat to maintain their body temperature. And the means by which they keep the heat in are equaled in importance only by the means by which they keep the cold out. Insulation such as fur and feathers, which act to maintain the body heat generated by the animal within a certain envelope, also act as barriers to cold from the environment.

In the case of water birds, proper feather structure, or the alignment of the feather’s elements in relation to one another, is imperative in keeping the cold water from contacting the birds’ bodies. Oil on the feathers both interferes with a bird’s ability to continuously preen and keep aligned these elements, and can actually damage the feather structure itself. Even an oiled area the size of a quarter on a water bird can lead to hypothermia within minutes. Thus a seemingly minute patch of feathers with compromised structure and function can mean death to a bird affected by oil.

And this is the case with any oil. In terms of overall environmental damage, toxic oils are no doubt more detrimental to ecosystems than, say, vegetable oils. But to a wild animal just trying to make it in a harsh, cold, climate, even the spill of a lovely organic sesame oil behind a health food store can mean death.

The moral of the story? Don’t assume that any release of oil into the environment is trivial. It comes as a surprise to most of us that oil spills happen every day, and that wild animals are impacted regularly by oil release events that we never have, and never will hear of. So while we are justifiably upset, and perhaps disturbed to the point of action when large-scale oil spills occur, we should be just as watchful to ensure that frequent, small scale spills become as reviled as the more media-friendly biggies. Here’s to fixing those engine leaks, securing those oil storage containers, and recognising that even little spills can mean certain death for wild animals trying to make it in an oil- obsessed world.

Zoe Dalton is a graduate of York University’s environmental science program, and is currently enjoying working towards a Master of Arts in Integrated Studies with Athabasca U. She can be reached for comments or questions at