Life under an oil slick: response of a freshwater food web to simulated spills of diluted bitumen in field mesocosms

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Cederwall, Jeffrey
Black, Tyler
Blais, Jules
Hanson, Mark
Hollebone, Bruce P.
Palace, Vince
Rodriguez-Gil, Jose Luis
Greer, Charles
Maynard, Christine
Ortmann, Alice
Heavy crude oil transportation over land is increasing, yet the ecological impacts of spills, particularly of diluted bitumen, in freshwater environments remain poorly understood. We simulated spills of diluted bitumen in 1400 L land-based mesocosms containing water and sediments from a boreal, oligotrophic lake and monitored the response of natural planktonic communities over 11 days. Most species of phytoplankton (chrysophytes and dinoflagellates) and zooplankton (copepods and cladocerans) were sensitive to oil, exhibiting >70% overall abundance reductions in response to the spills. Declines in nano- and microphytoplankton were short-lived and began to recover after the oil sank, whereas picophytoplankton and zooplankton populations remained depressed at the end of the experiment. In contrast, oil spills stimulated bacteria known to degrade hydrocarbons, especially Alphaproteobacteria, whereas Gammaprotobacteria (a common marine oil spill bacterial class) increased less. This is the first experiment to examine the effects of diluted bitumen in a multitrophic freshwater community.