Our toxic oil waste products might be affecting otters’ sex lives. Their penis bone is getting weaker and brittle or so claims a recent study published in Chemosphere.
Biologists from McMaster University analysed and observed river otter populations around Alberta’s crude oil hub. The area is deemed as the world’s largest industrial project by a National Geographic article.
Here, tar sands are used to create fuel. Tar Sand is a mixture of sand, clay, water, and black bitumen which underlies in the area’s boreal forest.
Certain compounds found in crude are known to decrease or affect some animals’ reproductive process. With this in mind, the researchers went on to study local otters’ long, curved penile bones, called baculum. Trappers were recruited to collect three dozen of these animals. The collected animals were scanned using computed tomography and their insides were analysed.
They conducted a comparative study between Alberta’s crude oil hub otters and otters living in less polluted regions. They observed the latter group had stronger and denser phallus bones. Their inference for this “strength” was a lack of hydrocarbons exposure.
They even conducted studies on dead otters’ baculum which they obtained from fur traders both in and outside of the area. They analysed “cringe” which was the maximum load the bone could bear before breaking. The results were similar to those of live-otters and the tar-pit otters performed poorly. The penile bones of otters around tar sands could not hold up to either destructive or non-destructive tests.
The authors of the study claim that this decreased strength could interfere with their reproductive ability. This will not only affect otter populations but have repercussions down the food chain.
River Otters are considered “sentinel species,” according to Gizmodo. These species are the first to be affected by environmental changes and contaminant exposure before any other species get affected. The researchers fear that even human reproductive systems could be affected by the tar pits.
A 2013 England study also observed certain pollutants disrupting otters’ penile function. However, the tar-pit otter may have a silver lining in the cloud as some contaminants, like strontium, iron, and retene, have been associated with stronger baculum.
But their net effect remains negative as most of the contaminants are wreaking havoc on the aquatic dweller’s reproductive parts.