Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp 853–861 | Cite as

Sublethal Effects of Crude Oil on the Community Structure of Estuarine Phytoplankton

  • Kailen Gilde
  • James L. PinckneyEmail author


While the ecological impacts of crude oil exposure have been widely studied, its sublethal effects on phytoplankton community structure in salt marsh estuaries have not been well documented. The purpose of this study was to simulate oil spill conditions using a microcosm design to examine short-term (2 day) changes in phytoplankton community composition and total biomass following exposure to crude oil obtained from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and a mixture of Texas crude oils. Microcosm experiments were performed in situ in North Inlet Estuary near Georgetown, SC. A control and six replicated experimental treatments of crude oil additions at final concentrations of 10, 50, or 100 μl l−1 of either Deepwater Horizon spill oil or the Texas crude mixture were incubated under in situ conditions. Photopigments were analyzed using high-performance liquid chromatography and community composition was determined using ChemTax. Total phytoplankton biomass (as chl a) declined with increasing crude oil concentrations. Prasinophytes, the most abundant microalga in both experiments, showed no response to oil exposure in one experiment and a significant negative response in the other. Diatoms euglenophytes and chlorophytes appeared relatively resistant to oil contamination at the exposure levels used in this study, maintaining or increasing their relative abundance with increasing oil concentrations. Chlorophytes and cyanobacteria increased in relative abundance while cryptophyte abundance decreased with increasing oil concentrations. The results of these experiments suggest that low levels of crude oil exposure may reduce total biomass and alter phytoplankton community composition with possible cascade effects at higher trophic levels in salt marsh estuaries.


HPLC ChemTax Bioassay Prasinophytes Diatoms Horizon Maconco spill 



We thank B. Bachmann, E. Kelly, and T. Armstrong for their help with field sampling and HPLC analyses. T. Richardson provided invaluable editorial comments. P. Lillis (USGS) and S. Miles (LSU) provided the crude oil. Funding for this project was obtained through an award to K. Gilde from the Magellan Scholar Undergraduate Research Program, Office of Undergraduate Research, University of South Carolina. This is publication 1640 from the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences.


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Marine Science Program and Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA

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