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Sunday, August 15, 2010 - 9:30am

The Smithsonian Remembers Life Before The Spill

It'll take years to fully know the effects of the BP oil spill on wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. One thing we do know now is what that wildlife was like before the 206 million gallons of oil spewed into the water. For that knowledge, we have the Smithsonian Institution to thank.

The Smithsonian Institution's Museum Support Center is an anonymous beige warehouse complex just outside Washington, D.C. It doesn't look like anything special until you get inside.

These buildings house all the things that don't fit into the museums on the National Mall, in endless rows of jars and bottles and boxes. Among them is the world's largest collection of invertebrates from the Gulf of Mexico, all floating in 150-proof alcohol. It's a pretty comprehensive snapshot of life before the spill.

Jonathan Coddington is the head of research and collections at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. He tells NPR's Guy Raz that those thousands of jars are an invaluable resource for scientists.

"It describes the way the Gulf was prior to the spill," Coddington says. "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?"

Scientists are particularly concerned with the effect of the spill on eggs and larvae of Gulf creatures, Coddington says. Oil has already been found in the larvae of blue crabs off the Gulf Coast, and the Smithsonian's collection can help scientists figure out what that really means. "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?

"The point about having a comprehensive collection of life on Earth," Coddington says, "is that it's used every day to answer practical questions." He adds that without this collection, scientists would have to speculate about what life was like before the spill.

"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. 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." [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]