Biology Faculty Proceedings, Presentations, Speeches, Lectures

Tracking responses to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill using trace elements in molluscan shells and tissues

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American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, 2010

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Documenting the effects of modern stressors on coastal benthic marine communities requires a combination of baseline historical data and modern dynamic data. E.g., landfall of hydrocarbons from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig and well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico is impacting coastal areas long affected by natural seepage, as well as petroleum exploration and development. In Louisiana, exploration in coastal areas that began in the 1920s expanded greatly with the development of the first mobile drilling barge in 1933. In total nearly 50,000 wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1930s. Given this historical context, we are assessing pathways and rates at which crude oil components from the 2010 spill are incorporated into northern Gulf of Mexico coastal food webs. Sclerochronological techniques are being used to unlock the high-resolution physical and chemical records preserved within mollusc shells. We are analyzing historical specimens collected from the late 19th through late 20th centuries, baseline specimens collected in May 2010 in Louisiana and Alabama before visible hydrocarbons were present, and specimens collected in August 2010 after hydrocarbons made landfall. We are examining changes in life history traits (growth rate, recruitment, mortality, reproduction) of the commercial oyster Crassostrea virginica, and other common, co-occurring molluscs that are primary and secondary consumers in Gulf of Mexico coastal food webs. The taxa include the marsh-dwelling gastropod Littoraria irrorata and mussel Geukensia demissa, and open-water species including the bivalves Ischadium recurvum and Tellina alternata. These consumers range from epifaunal, sessile, filter feeders; to infaunal, mobile, deposit feeders; to epifaunal, mobile, omnivorous grazers. In this way, multiple potential pathways into coastal food webs are being monitored. Because environmental perturbations of many scales are recorded by the accretionary growth of mollusc shells, we can monitor the sub-monthly incorporation of hydrocarbon components into shells, such as trace metals (e.g., V, Ni, Cu and Cr), while simultaneously measuring changes in shell growth rate. We will also measure concentrations of metals in soft tissues from specimens collected since May 2010. Trace metal concentrations will be determined using ICPMS. Annual and sub-annual growth rates will be calculated from δ13C and δ18O profiles derived from ontogentic sampling of the molluscs' shells. The comparisons between historic, baseline and post-landfall specimens will allow us to assess the changing conditions of these species and their food webs as drilling expanded in the Gulf during the 20th century, and therefore distinguish the immediate impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill from these background factors. In this way, we will also trace secondary impacts (not related to fouling by direct contact) of hydrocarbons through trophic levels of the coastal ecosystem.

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