Fish Ear Bones Hear Chemical Secrets of Water

Fish ear bones are just like tree rings. The otolith bone inside a fish’s ear records the creature’s growth. Micro slices of sliver-sized ear bones can give scientists clues to the chemistry of the water in which fish swim. They can measure carbon dioxide levels and one year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, researchers at University of South Florida are inspecting the tiny ear bones of different species of fish for signs of oil.

The answers they find may hold keys to restoring the Gulf of Mexico after the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Dr. Ernst Peeble’s research team is looking to see if the growth rates of fish changed after coming into contact with oil in the gulf. They can also measure which species of fish were most affected by the spill and which are relatively unharmed.

BP promised $500 million over the next 10 years for research to study the effects of the oil spill that sent 4.9 million barrels of oil spewing unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico from April 20-July 15, 2010. So far, the ear bone science team has only seen $10 million of the $50 million it was promised.

A BP spokesman says that because the research is new, there are some growing pains associated with the projects. The oil company says it will fulfill its promise to fund research but it’s not clear on the time line.

For now, the researchers are in limbo, waiting for more funding to complete their work.

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