Edward G. Durbin

  • Emeritus Professor of Oceanography
  • Biological Oceanography
  • Phone: 401.874.6850
  • Email: edurbin@uri.edu
  • Office Location: 218 Aquarium Building


Krill, the tiny crustaceans that make up a major part of some marine food webs, are important prey for many types of animals, but it is not so readily known what krill feed on during winter months when their favorite food, phytoplankton, is scarce. To find out, GSO scientists including Dr. Edward G. Durbin have been traveling to the Antarctic to study krill feeding habits and they have come up with a surprising revelation.

Krill traditionally eat phytoplankton that is drifting in the water column. As long as there is sufficient light, the phytoplankton population swells. But when the Antarctic winter sets in, sunlight penetration is reduced, the phytoplankton population crashes and, unless krill can find an alternate food source, they too will decline. It was found that krill mine the sea floor sediments, stirring up debris fallen down from the water column. Just what they stir up and eat is still to be determined by molecular analysis.

“So it’s a big deal,” says Durbin, “because all the models consider krill to be planktivores. But if they feed at certain times in the sediments, this means that the carbon settled to the bottom is not lost to the system—it is being recycled and brought up into the water column.”

Krill, notes Durbin, have been studied to death—there are literally thousands of research papers written about them. But the reason he was funded for this project is that he and others, including his wife, Maria, an expert in molecular techniques, decided that a molecular approach was needed to unravel the mystery. A molecular analysis of the guts of krill involves blocking out the krill’s DNA and looking at the DNA of what remains. “We will be able to identify exactly what these guys are eating and that will be useful to know how the food chain is working.” The techniques involved were developed fairly recently, he notes, adding that some of the basic molecular procedures were not even developed when he was at GSO getting his doctorate in biological oceanography. The ongoing krill project required him and Maria to undertake further training in molecular techniques—he credits David Smith, associate GSO dean, for helping them.

Durbin is a native of New Zealand where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany. He came to URI in 1969 to study under Dr. Theodore Smayda. Just before he and his late wife, Ann, graduated, they were involved in a study on menhaden and wrote a proposal to continue the work. Dr. John Knauss, GSO’s first dean, allowed them to be the sole principal investigators on the project and Smayda offered them the use of his laboratory. It was somewhat unusual for GSO at that time, because no research was undertaken by non-faculty as principal investigators. The National Science Foundation loved the proposal, says Durbin, recalling that “it was probably the only time a program manager called up to tell us we did not ask for enough money to do the research.” The Durbins worked for eight years as soft money researchers. Ann died in 1995, and the building where they worked bears her name. Durbin met his second wife, Maria, at GSO and today she works with him in the laboratory and on research cruises.

The Durbins not only combine efforts on research, they also have a common love for gardening and landscaping on their hilly property south of Kingston. Both of them are URI Master Gardeners and their property was part of a statewide garden tour a few years ago. “Gardening is a diversion—research work can be very stressful at times; it is very competitive to get research money,” he admits. “Gardening is kind of fun, doing something different.”


Biological Oceanography 

Benthic-pelagic coupling, Ecosystem dynamics, Marine habitat and ecosystems, Molecular ecology, Phytoplankton ecology, Plankton ecology, Polar processes, Zooplankton ecology. 

I am interested in, and worked in many different areas of phytoplankton, zooplankton, and fish ecology. Most recently I have focused on population dynamics of zooplankton in the ocean. Zooplankton provide the link between the primary producers (phytoplankton) and consumers at higher trophic levels (fish). Understanding these linkages is important for evaluating and modeling effects of climate change, eutrophication, overfishing, etc., on marine ecosystems. Important processes for zooplankton are birth, growth and mortality rates and I have studied all of these both in the field and in the laboratory.
Feeding behavior of zooplankton is an important factor determining growth rates. While this has been studied in the laboratory, determining actual in situ feeding behavior and feeding rates has been problematic. To overcome these difficulties I developed new molecular approaches to measuring in situ feeding behavior by zooplankton. This was initially bootlegged on another grant and then supported with a Small Grant for Exploratory Research (SGER) from NSF. We are now able to identify prey DNA sequences in the guts of zooplankton and to quantify the amounts of DNA of individual prey species. From this we are able to calculate in situ feeding rates on these individual prey species. This has been quite successful and we have been funded on two grants to use these techniques in the field.

In the first project, we were part of a larger study investigating the Bering Sea ecosystem. In our part we investigated feeding by the dominant Arctic copepod Calanus glacialis under extensive sea ice during early spring. We found high feeding and reproductive rates at this time despite extremely low phytoplankton levels in the water column. Using our molecular techniques we found that they were feeding on a dense layer of ice algae growing on the underside of the sea ice. We concluded that colder years, when ice cover is more extensive and persists longer, result in an extended period of higher food availability for C. glacialis compared with the brief ice-edge or water column phytoplankton bloom. This provides a longer period of growth for the population resulting in greater abundance of C. glacialis later during the spring compared with warmer years. Thus the success of this key Arctic copepod is dependent upon seasonal ice cover and its associated ice algae during spring. Any changes in the extent of this seasonal ice cover associated with climate change will adversely affect animals at higher trophic levels that feed upon this key species. The Bering Sea Shelf is a region of rapid climate change. Knowledge of how key species respond to this change will help predict overall ecosystem response and how important fisheries as well as endangered species may be affected.
In a second project, we are investigating feeding behavior by krill in the Antarctic. This is a key species in the ecosystem and has been the subject of many studies. While it has usually been considered to eat mainly phytoplankton in the water column, we hypothesize that, during periods of low food availability, krill may be eating organisms in the bottom sediments. Our molecular tools make it possible to investigate this question. Preliminary results from our initial cruise during austral winter this past May and June demonstrate that the krill are indeed ingesting sediments. This provides a new pathway for carbon flow: from the sediments to the water column. Our observations will mean that all of the ecosystem models for the Antarctic will have to be revised. Our observations will help understand how this ecosystem will respond to already ongoing climate changes.


Ph.D. Biological Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, 1976 

M.S. Botany, Auckland University, 1969 

B.S. Botany, Auckland University, 1968

Selected Publications

Durbin, E. G., M. C. Casas. 2013. Early reproduction by Calanus glacialis in the northern Bering Sea: the role of ice algae as revealed by molecular analysis. J. Plankton Res. 0(0): 1–19. doi:10.1093/plankt/fbt121

Durbin, E.G., M.C. Casas, T.A. Rynearson. 2012 Copepod feeding and digestion rates using prey DNA and qPCR. J. Plankton Res. 43:72-82

Cleary AC, EG Durbin, TA Rynearson 2012 Krill feeding on sediment in the Gulf of Maine (North Atlantic) Mar Ecol Prog Ser 455:157-172

Durbin, EG, MC Casas, TA Rynearson, DC Smith. 2008. Measurement of copepod predation on nauplii using qPCR of the cytochrome oxidase gene. Mar Biol. 153:699-707.

Durbin EG, RG Campbell. 2007. Reassessment of the gut pigment method for estimating in situ zooplankton ingestion. Mar Ecol Progr Ser. 331:305-307.

Durbin, E.G. M.C. Casas. 2006. Abundance and spatial distribution of copepods on Georges Bank during the winter/spring period. Deep-Sea Research Part II 53:2537-2569.

Saumweber, W.J. E.G. Durbin. 2006. Estimating potential diapause duration in Calanus finmarchicus. Deep-Sea Research Part II 53:2597-2596.

Runge, J.A., S. Plourde, P. Joly, B. Niehoff, E. Durbin. 2006. Characteristics of egg production of the planktonic copepod, Calanus finmarchicus, on Georges Bank: 1994-1999. Deep-Sea Research Part II 53:2618-2631.

Li, Xingwen, D.J. McGillicuddy Jr, E.G. Durbin, and P.H. Wiebe. 2006 Biological control of the vernal population increase of Calanus finmarchicus on Georges Bank. Deep-Sea Research Part II 53:2632-2655.

Ji, R. C. Chen, P.J.S. Franks, D.W. Townsend, E.G. Durbin, R.C. Beardsley, R.G. Lough, R.W. Houghton. 2006. Spring phytoplankton bloom and associated lower trophic level food web dynamics on Georges Bank: 1-D and 2-D model studies. Deep-Sea Research Part II 53:2656-2683.

Ji, R. C. Chen, P.J.S. Franks, D.W. Townsend, E.G. Durbin, R.C. Beardsley, R.G. Lough, R.W. Houghton. 2006. The impact of Scotian Shelf Water “cross-over” on the plankton dynmamics on Georges Bank: a 3-D experiment for the 1999 spring bloom. Deep-Sea Research Part II 53:2684-2707.

Buckley, L.J. E.G. Durbin. 2006. Seasonal and Interannual trends in the zooplankton prey and growth rate of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus) larvae on Georges Bank. Deep-Sea Research Part II 53:2758-2788.

Luo, Y, M. Prater, and E. Durbin. 2006 Changes in the Northwest Atlantic circulation for the 1992-1995 high NAO period from a numerical model. Continental Shelf Research 26:1617-1635.

Ohman, M. D., K. Eiane, E.G. Durbin, J.A. Runge, H.-J. Hirche. 2004. A comparative study of Calanus finmarchicus mortality patterns in five localities in the North Atlantic. ICES Journal of Marine Science 61:687-697.

Perry, R.I., H.P. Batchelder, S. Chiba, E. Durbin, W. Greve, D.L. Mackas, H.M. Verheye. 2004. Identifying global asynchronies in marine zooplankton populations: issues and opportunities. ICES Journal of Marine Science 61:445-456.

Durbin, E.G., R. Campbell, M. Casas, B. Niehoff, J. Runge, M. Wagner. 2003. Interannual Variation in Phytoplankton blooms and Zooplankton Productivity and Abundance in the Gulf of Maine During Winter. Mar Ecol Progr Ser. 254:81-100

Durbin, E.G., G. Teegarden, R. Campbell, A. Cembella, M. Baumgartner, B. Mate. 2002. North Atlantic right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, exposed to paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxins via a zooplankton vector, Calanus finmarchicus. Harmful Algae 1:243-251.

M. D. Ohman, J. A. Runge, E.G. Durbin, D. B. Field, B. Niehoff. 2002. On birth and death in the sea. Hydrobiologia 480:55-68.