Crude oil contamination interrupts settlement of coral larvae after direct exposure ends

Mean settlement of (A)  Orbicella faveolata and (B)  Agaricia humilis larvae
TitleCrude oil contamination interrupts settlement of coral larvae after direct exposure ends
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsHartmann A.C, Sandin SA, Chamberland V.F, Marhaver KL, de Goeij J.M, Vermeij MJA
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
Date Published2015/09
Type of ArticleArticle
ISBN Number0171-8630
Accession NumberWOS:000363732500013
KeywordsAgaricia humilis; Caribbean; caribbean reef corals; Carry-over effects; coral reefs; effects; embryonic-development; exxon-valdez; fish; herring embryos; larval settlement; latent; Oil spills; Orbicella faveolata; pollution; prince-william-sound; short-term; spill; survival

Oil spills cause damage to marine wildlife that lasts well past their immediate aftermath. Marine offspring that must settle and metamorphose to reach adulthood may be particularly prone to harm if the legacy of oil exposure interrupts later transitions across life stages. Following an oil spill on Curacao, we found that oil-contaminated seawater reduced settlement of 2 coral species by 85% and 40% after exposure had ended. The effect of contamination on settlement was more severe than any direct or latent effects on survival. Therefore, oil exposure reduces the ability of corals to transition to their adult life stage, even after they move away from oil contamination. This interruption of the life cycle likely has severe consequences for recruitment success in these foundational and threatened organisms. Latent, sublethal, and behavioral effects on marine organisms-as shown in this study-are not commonly considered during oil-spill impact assessments, increasing the likelihood that harm to marine species goes underestimated or unmeasured.


Exposure to crude oil contamination has negative carry-over and latent effects on larval survival in corals, effects that demographically outweighed the direct effects of exposure in our experiments. Crude oil and oil dispersants can reduce the survival and settlement of coral larvae during exposure (Epstein et al. 2000, Goodbody-Gringley et al. 2013) and may lower recruitment rates onto reefs that have suffered from months of chronic crude oil inputs (Negri &Heyward 2000). Our results show that oil contamination-induced larval mortality in corals is not limitedto mortality during the exposure period, highlighting the fact that the carry-over and latent effects of oil exposure on invertebrate larvae deserve attention when assessing the ecological damage from oil spills

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