Sunday, April 02, 2006
Too many males in dead zones
WASHINGTON -- Dead zones -- oxygen-starved patches of ocean -- may be turning normal breeding grounds into the equivalent of male-dominated locker rooms for fish.
In lab experiments, newly born male zebrafish outnumber females 3-to-1 when oxygen is reduced. And the precious few females have testosterone levels about twice as high as normal, according to a scientific study released this past week.
Scientists are concerned that might reflect life in the dead zones, too.
Earlier studies also have found reproductive problems for males in other species in oxygen-starved waters. And though all the research is done in controlled laboratories, scientists say the gender bending is something that could explain what they are seeing in the nearly 150 dead zones worldwide.
This could be a serious problem because with the expansion of dead zones -- such as the massive Gulf of Mexico area now the size of New Jersey -- fish die, and those that don't die may not be able to keep the species alive, scientists say.
Having too many males "is not a good strategy for survival," said Alan Lewitus, who manages the dead zone program for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The world's dead zones add up to about 100,000 square miles and most of those zones are man-made because of fertilizer and other farm run-off, said Robert Diaz, a professor of marine sciences at the College of William and Mary. More than 30 dead zones are in U.S. waters and are part of key fisheries.
The stress of hypoxia -- the lack of oxygen in water -- tinkers with the genes that help make male and female sex hormones, said study lead author Rudolf Wu, director of the Centre for Coastal Pollution and Conservation at the City University of Hong Kong. Wu's peer-reviewed study will appear in the May issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Wu restricted the oxygen of zebrafish, which are freshwater aquarium fish, but said similar changes are possible in other species of fresh and saltwater fish. Fish often change genders during their lives, but this is different, he said.
"Since development of sex organs is modulated by sex hormones, hypoxia may therefore affect sex determination and development," Wu wrote in an e-mail interview. "Hypoxia covers a very large area worldwide, many areas and species may be affected in a similar way."
Wu and others said oxygen starvation may be a more powerful sex hormone-altering problem than the chemical pollution that has gotten widespread attention.