GUY RAZ, host:

A couple of days ago, we went to the Smithsonian Institution's research complex outside Washington, D.C. It's where hundreds of scientists study and catalog specimens of plants and animals preserved in a kind of time capsule, a time capsule that includes the largest collection of species from the Gulf of Mexico.

We met up with Jonathan Coddington. He is the head of research at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, and he took us into a vault that houses millions of examples of invertebrates from the Gulf.

Dr. JONATHAN CODDINGTON (Associate Director for Research and Collections, Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History): Well, this is the chunk that has to do with worms. If we go a bit further down here, now we get to snails.

RAZ: All of these samples were taken long before the Gulf oil spill. And over the coming years, they'll help scientists and lawyers track how the spill has affected life in the Gulf.

Coddington sat surrounded by jars of preserved shrimp and sea worms and explained why the collection is vital.

Dr. CODDINGTON: It describes the way the Gulf was prior to the spill. So all of the questions coming at us about the effects of the spill, the effects it has on the economy, the effects it has on the environment, are going to need a comparison. So we know the way it is now. How was it prior to the spill?

RAZ: Now sitting next to us, for example, is a jar of two Gulf shrimp preserved in alcohol, almost a foot long each. I mean, could you imagine - I mean, is it plausible that the oil spill could have an impact on Gulf shrimp where maybe they might not grow as large as a foot?

Dr. CODDINGTON: Exactly. So you could also ask, do those shrimp over there have the same body burden of hydrocarbons, of pollutants in their flesh as the shrimp after the oil spill?

RAZ: So over the coming years, researchers could look at what they're finding in the Gulf...

Dr. CODDINGTON: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...open it up, find out how these species have been affected by the oil spill...

Dr. CODDINGTON: Right.

RAZ: ...what's in their systems, if their growth has been slowed down, and you can compare it to what you have?

Dr. CODDINGTON: Yeah. One of the things scientists are particularly worried about is the effect the oil may have on very early stages of life in the Gulf. So eggs and larvae.

Those larvae might grow up to have deformities of one sort or another. Well, so you have a collection of organisms with deformities, say, 10 percent of them have some sort of deformity. What was the percentage prior to the spill?

So you come to us, you get a collection of those organisms, and you figure out what the frequency of deformity was.

RAZ: Actually, as we're sitting here, your colleague just handed us a piece of paper here. It's an AP report that just crossed the wires that says that there is evidence in crab larva of oil.

Dr. CODDINGTON: Right.

RAZ: Scientists obviously haven't seen this before.

Dr. CODDINGTON: These are tiny droplets of oil that are dispersed in the water. And apparently, someone has found specks of oil, it says here, in crab larvae plucked from waters across the Gulf Coast.

So there you have it. There's oil in crab larvae. Well, how much oil is there in a crab larva normally? Maybe crab larvae have some oil in them anyway. What kind of effect does oil have on crab larvae?

RAZ: But you have specimens of it here.

Dr. CODDINGTON: Right.

RAZ: And so they could...

Dr. CODDINGTON: Prior to the spill. So they can look at it, and we may even have specimens from more or less exactly where these same crab larvae came from.

It's the before and after comparison that makes it scientific, you know, something you can measure, something you can conclude.

RAZ: So explain what you do now. I mean, you basically wait because it could be a while before researchers are coming here asking to look at the material you have, right?

Dr. CODDINGTON: That's true in the case of this - of the Gulf of Mexico. But, you know, people are coming to our collections all the time to use them. I mean, it's already been the case in the Gulf of Mexico that someone alleged, a number of years back, back in the '90s, that a particular kind of crab did have a lot of lesions on its body, a lot of deformities.

And that was because they thought they saw more deformities in the crabs they were catching in the '90s. We went back to the 1800s, looked at a sample of crabs from the 1800s. It turned out there weren't more, you know, lesions on the crabs.

So the point about having a comprehensive collection of life on Earth, which is what the museum aspires to have, is that it's used every day of the year to answer practical questions.

The fact that we now suddenly have a oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we didn't know in February that we were going to have an oil spill. But we knew we needed to have a good collection of the Gulf of Mexico. And so that's our job. And we feel like we're as ready as we can be for things that are going to happen in the future.

RAZ: And if we didn't have this, if this collection didn't exist?

Dr. CODDINGTON: You wouldn't have the baseline information to you'd have to speculate about what the ecosystem was like prior to the spill.

RAZ: That's Jonathan Coddington. He is the head of research and collections at the National Museum of Natural History.

Jonathan Coddington, thank you.

Dr. CODDINGTON: You're welcome.

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