ECU research reveals impact from 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Research by ECU faculty members Drs. David Kimmel, left, and Siddhartha Mitra noted the effects of oil on the ocean food chain. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)


Research by East Carolina University faculty and students has confirmed that oil from the April 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico made it into the ocean’s food chain.

The ECU researchers worked with colleagues at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Oregon State University and the United States Geological Survey. In their study published by Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers found that crude oil from the spill entered the food chain through the tiniest of organisms, zooplankton, which forms the base of the food chain in marine ecosystems.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, ECU biology graduate student Ben McGlaughon, geological sciences graduate student Kim Scalise, and undergraduate biology student Jessica Snyder, worked alongside Dr. Siddhartha Mitra from the Department of Geological Sciences and Dr. David Kimmel from the Department of Biology and Institute for Coastal Sciences and Policy to analyze samples of zooplankton extracted from the Gulf of Mexico during August and September of 2010.

The researchers were able to determine the extent to which oil and oil pollutants had affected the ecosystem by extracting polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can be used to identify oil and determine its origin.

“Our research helped to determine a ‘fingerprint’ of the Deepwater Horizon spill; something that other researchers interested the spill may be able to use,” Mitra said.

“Furthermore, our work demonstrated that zooplankton in the Northern Gulf of Mexico accumulated toxic compounds derived from the well.”

The researchers found the fingerprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in low levels among zooplankton in the area as much as a month after the leaking wellhead was capped. In addition, the extent of the contamination seemed to be patchy. Some zooplankton at certain locations far removed from the spill showed evidence of contamination, whereas zooplankton in other locations, sometimes near the spill, showed lower indications of exposure to the oil-derived pollutants.

The ECU researchers will follow up on their study to confirm if Deepwater Horizon oil compounds made it to the North Carolina coastline at any point after the 2010 spill.

For additional information on the current findings, or for information about the follow-up study, contact Mitra at 252-328-6611 or




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