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Microplastics harm some ocean animals more than others

We flush it, toss it, and watch it drift away – but our plastic waste doesn’t magically disappear. A recent Exeter-led study shows how microplastics affects different ocean animals. The experts found that some ocean animals are far more exposed to the dangers of microplastics than others.

Microplastics are tiny plastic fragments, often less than 5 millimeters in size. These insidious bits of pollution come from various sources, the breakdown of larger plastic items like bottles and bags. Manufacturers may intentionally produce them for use in products like cosmetics and industrial cleaners.

Once in the ocean, they don’t conveniently break down and disappear; they just get smaller and more difficult to remove.

Ocean victims of microplastics

Dr. Adam Porter is a leading voice in the study and part of the ambitious Convex Seascape Survey. “We know very little about the global seafloor and the species living there, but the impact of plastic pollution is growing even in parts of the deep ocean never seen by humans,” noted Porter.

You might think that filter feeders, animals that strain food from the water (such as mussels), would be most vulnerable since they are literally filtering the ocean. But that’s not what researchers found.

Instead of filter feeders, it’s the predators, omnivores (eating both plants and animals), and scavengers munching on the seafloor that are most likely to have plastic in their systems. Examples include crabs, starfish, sea cucumbers, and even squid.

Sadly, a sea urchin found using a piece of electrician’s tape as camouflage. “Contrary to previous thinking, it turns out that many filter feeders have fairly effective methods of releasing unwanted particles rather than ingesting them,” explained Dr. Porter.

Ocean location and microplastic consumption

The “burden” of plastic within animal species recovered from the seafloor gives scientists new insights. Researchers found the risk of exposure to plastic depends heavily on location.

Animals in areas like the Mediterranean and Yellow Seas, heavily polluted by plastic, had the highest microplastic levels. For example, a shrimp from the Mediterranean was found with 164 microplastics inside its body.

Study implications

Seabed creatures play a vital role in our ecosystem. They break down waste, recycle nutrients, and form the foundation of the marine food web.

When ocean animals ingest microplastics, those tiny pollutants can work their way up the entire food chain. The plastics could potentially ending up on our dinner plates. Additionally, if these hardworking recyclers are compromised, the health of our entire ocean is at stake.

“Organisms living in the seabed…may not seem that important, but they are essential for regulating and recycling the planet’s resources and form the base of the food web,” explained Professor Jasmin Godbold from the University of Southampton.

“Our findings suggest that previous assumptions about the risk of exposure to plastic in our oceans are likely, for better or for worse, to be far from the reality.”

Microplastics and ocean life

These findings underscore that not all ocean animals are equally threatened by microplastics. While some might have ways to protect themselves, the sheer amount of plastic is still a major concern.

“These techniques of how we group animals when we look for the effects and fate of microplastics are important tools for us to understand and simplify the world,” said Dr. Ceri Lewis, a co-author from the University of Exeter.

“We are now using these methods in the Convex Seascape Survey, to understand how animals interact with carbon on the seafloor and what the significance is of their behaviors in the fight against climate change.”

Getting rid of ocean microplastics

“The only true conservation strategy is to stop producing so much plastic—especially single-use plastic,” stressed Professor Tamara Galloway from the University of Exeter.

“Such items may only be used for minutes or even seconds, but they persist in the ocean for hundreds of years.”

While individual changes matter (reusable bags, bottles, and food containers), this study highlights the urgent need for larger solutions. Demanding change from businesses and governments is crucial.

To combat the pollution crisis, reducing plastic production is essential. Additionally, investing in waste management infrastructure can significantly help. These steps, taken together, have the potential to reverse the tide of pollution.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


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