Although planktonic protozoans are likely to interact with dispersed crude oil after a spill, protozoan-mediated processes affecting crude oil pollution in the sea are still not well known. Here, we present the first evidence of ingestion and defecation of physically or chemically dispersed crude oil droplets (1-86 mmin diameter) by heterotrophic dinoflagellates, major components of marine planktonic food webs. At a crude oil concentration commonly found after an oil spill (1 mu L L-1), the heterotrophic dinoflagellates Noctiluca scintillans and Gyrodinium spirale grew and ingested similar to 0.37 mu g-oil mg-C-dino (-1) d(-1), which could represent similar to 17% to 100% of dispersed oil in surface waters when heterotrophic dinoflagellates are abundant or bloom. Egestion of faecal pellets containing crude oil by heterotrophic dinoflagellates could contribute to the sinking and flux of toxic petroleum hydrocarbons in coastal waters. Our study indicates that crude oil ingestion by heterotrophic dinoflagellates is a noteworthy route by which petroleum enters marine food webs and a previously overlooked biological process influencing the fate of crude oil in the sea after spills.