Research

Oil Drops and Filter Feeders

Oil slick atop water.

Natural oils provide critical nutrients to filter feeders like zooplankton and barnacles. These creatures capture oil droplets on bristle-like appendages such as cilia and setae. But this droplet-catching turns into a disadvantage during petroleum spills, when capturing and ingesting oil can be lethal. A recent study looks at the fluid dynamics of oil droplet capture for these tiny creatures.

The authors found that filter feeders capture a range of droplets regardless of size and oil viscosity. But not all droplets stay attached long enough to get consumed, and the larger a droplet is, the lower the flow velocity necessary to detach it from the animal. That suggests a method of limiting uptake of spilled petroleum into the marine food chain: use surfactants to break up the oil into droplets large enough that they’ll detach from filter feeders before getting eaten. (Image credit: D. Pelusi; research credit: F. Letendre et al.; submitted by Christopher C.)

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