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Baby sea turtles are swallowing plastic trash

Anyone who’s walked along a beach almost anywhere in the world knows that plastic pollution is a real problem in the ocean. It may no longer be useful to go beachcombing with a metal detector, considering that about 80 percent of all ocean debris is now plastic. 

Plastic trash isn’t just ugly either, it’s a major threat to marine creatures. Scientists estimate that 700 ocean species, ranging from tiny organisms to enormous whales, interact with plastic trash. A new study published by Frontiers focuses on an especially charismatic example – baby sea turtles.

Young sea turtles in the Indian and Pacific Oceans have a high incidence of ingesting plastic. Eating or becoming entangled in plastic garbage can be fatal.

Sometimes, the plastic blocks digestion, perforates the gastrointestinal tract or causes laceration. Baby sea turtles can also be suffocated by trash.

Even when a turtle isn’t killed, scientists suspect that plastics can lead to malnutrition or contamination by harmful chemicals.

To examine plastic ingestion, scientists looked at five species of sea turtles found off Australia in the Indian and Pacific Ocean. They studied the contents of stomachs, bladders and cloacas of turtles stranded or caught as bycatch. Thankfully, plastics were only found in the animal’s gastrointestinal tract. 

Most of the plastics eaten by young turtles in the Pacific were hard plastic fragments that are extremely common, thus making the specific sources of these pollutants hard to pinpoint. Study lead author Dr. Emily Duncan of the University of Exeter explained how  the situation was different in the Indian Ocean.

“Plastic in the Pacific turtles was mostly hard fragments, which could come from a vast range of products used by humans, while Indian Ocean plastics were mostly fibers – possibly from fishing ropes or nets,” said Dr. Duncan.

It’s hard to imagine that consumption of plastic by sea turtles, especially young turtles won’t have a negative impact but the scientist’s next goal is to examine the specific health problems caused more closely. In the meantime, it’s good to look closely at the sources of plastic pollution – humans on land. 

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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