Sci-tech

Mystery of why seabirds eat plastic is revealed

Mystery of why seabirds eat plastic is revealed

Researchers at the University of California, Davis said lots of seabirds sniff out their meals by tracking the smell of dying algae.

In ocean ecosystems, a sulfurous compound called dimethyl sulfide (DMS) is produced by marine algae when they are being eaten by animals like krill.

The problem is that plastic in the ocean tends to accumulate algae and other organic matter on its surface in a process known as "biofouling" - and this material emits DMS, the new study found.

Plastic polluting the seas and beaches gives off a smell that reminds sea birds of food, drawing them to debris. And as a result, they end up snacking on plastic.

Seabirds eat plastic because it smells very bad. Hundreds of species of marine mammals, fish, birds, and sea turtles face this risk every day when they mistake plastic debris for food. Those species that have evolved to use DMS as a sign of food can be tricked by marine plastic debris that also emits DMS. In her previous research, she found that these types of birds (which the paper describes as "procellariiform species") have a strong sense of smell, and respond to a certain chemical, dimethyl sulfide, as a cue to find their prey. The scent elicits a feeding response from seabirds, especially species that heavily rely on their sense of smell to find food.

The discovery could explain why seabirds such as the albatross swallow plastic, causing injury or death. "There's nothing good that comes from eating plastic, and yet animals do it so much".

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To learn exactly what marine plastic debris smells like, the scientists put beads made of the three most common types of plastic debris-high-density polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, and poly-propylene-into the ocean at Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay, off the California coast.

Both Rochman and Savoca believe that fish and other marine animals might also be eating the plastic for the same reason as seabirds, which could be harmful to people who consume marine food. The findings help clarify why birds like the albatross and petrels (tube-nosed seabirds) are among the birds most significantly impacted by plastic ingestion.

They retrieved them three weeks later and had them analyzed at the university's Department of Viticulture and Enology, facilities typically reserved for analyzing wine flavor chemistry. The lab supplied equipment usually used to detect sulfur in wine, which the researchers then used to analyze their plastic samples.

And they say it might be possible to develop plastics that either do not attract algae or break down more quickly in the environment.

Researchers are not sure why plastic wastes smell strongly of DMS, but algae do grow on them. A 2015 study, which was led by Wilcox, predicted that 99 percent of all seabird species - up from about 59 percent now - will be eating plastic by the year 2050. "These species nest in underground burrows, which are hard to study, so they are often overlooked".

This is not the first time scientists come across this problem because plastic waste has polluted many water ecosystems across the world.


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