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Plastic waste is disrupting the sex lives of marine animals

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have discovered that plastic waste in aquatic environments may be severely disrupting the reproductive behavior of marine animals

The experts say that plastic waste in the water might be stopping – or interrupting – some creatures from reproducing. 

Studying marine plastic waste

The study was specifically focused on the marine amphipod Echinogammarus marinus, a shrimp-like creature that has a wide distribution.

Previous research on marine plastic pollution has typically examined the physical dangers, such as entrapment and ingestion. Instead, the Portsmouth study explored the chemical composition of plastics, particularly the additives that enhance their properties.

Unsuccessful mating 

The study reveals that chemicals commonly found in plastics are altering the reproductive behavior of E. marinus. This could have serious consequences not only for the species but also for the entire marine ecosystem.

“This unsuccessful mating behavior has serious repercussions, not only for the species being tested but potentially for the population as a whole,” explained Professor Alex Ford from Portsmouth’s Institute of Marine Sciences.

“These animals form pairs to reproduce. Once they were exposed to a chemical, they would break apart from their mate and take much longer -in some cases days – to repair, and sometimes not at all.”

“These creatures are commonly found on European shores, where they make up a substantial amount of the diet of fish and birds. If they are compromised it will have an effect on the whole food chain.”

Widespread use of chemicals 

The research sheds light on the widespread use of chemicals in everyday products. Out of over 350,000 chemicals used globally, about 10,000 are employed in plastics for various purposes, including flexibility, color enhancement, sun protection, and fire resistance. 

Alarmingly, a third of these chemicals are toxic to human health, affecting the immune, nervous, or reproductive systems.

Plastic additives 

The researchers tested four common plastic additives: phthalates (DEHP and DBP), Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), and N-butyl benzenesulfonamide (NBBS). These chemicals are found in a range of products, from medical supplies and food packaging to electronic equipment and cooking utensils.

The study revealed that all the tested additives hindered the pairing process of the amphipods, with some even causing a substantial decline in sperm count.

Study implications 

“Although the animals we tested were exposed to much higher concentrations than you would normally find in the environment, the results indicate these chemicals can affect sperm count,” said Professor Ford.

“It is conceivable that if we did the experiment on shrimps that had been exposed for a longer period or during critical stages in their life history, it would affect their sperm levels and quality.”

Study significance 

Study lead author Bidemi Green-Ojo, a PhD researcher in Environmental Toxicology, emphasized the importance of understanding the effects of these chemicals on aquatic life

“We must understand more about these chemicals and how they affect behavior. Many types of behavior – such as feeding, fight or flight mode, and reproduction – are essential in an animal’s life, and any atypical behavior may reduce the chances of survival,” said Green-Ojo.

“We are urging environment agencies around the world to take more notice of behavioral data, because sometimes the data tells us things that normal toxicity tests don’t. Studies like this give a different perspective on potential damage caused by a specific pollutant.”

The study is published in the journal Environmental Pollution.


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