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Despite an obvious suspect, oil, the answer is far from clear. The vast majority of the dead animals that have been found — 1,866 birds, 463 turtles, 59 dolphins and one sperm whale — show no visible signs of oil contamination. Much of the evidence in the turtle cases points, in fact, to shrimping or other commercial fishing, but other suspects include oil fumes, oiled food, the dispersants used to break up the oil or even disease.
Far less is known about the effects of dispersants, either by themselves or mixed with oil, though almost two million gallons of the chemicals have been used in the BP spill.
Studies show that dispersants, which break down oil into tiny droplets and can also break down cell membranes, make oil more toxic for some animals, like baby birds. And the solvents they contain can break down red blood cells, causing hemorrhaging. At least one fresh dolphin carcass found in the Gulf was bleeding from the mouth and blowhole, according to Lori Deangelis, a dolphin tour operator in Perdido Bay.