Yummy! New research reveals it's the taste of plastic not the look that drives corals to eat it
Scientists have long known that marine animals mistakenly eat plastic debris because the tiny bits of floating plastic might look like prey. But the eating may not be triggered by the look – more by the taste. According to this new study from Duke University in North Carolina - plastic just plain tastes good.
“Corals in our experiments ate all types of plastics but preferred unfouled microplastics by a threefold difference over microplastics covered in bacteria,” said Austin S. Allen, a PhD student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “This suggests the plastic itself contains something that makes it tasty.”
“When plastic comes from the factory, it has hundreds of chemical additives on it. Any one of these chemicals or a combination of them could be acting as a stimulant that makes plastic appealing to corals,” said Alexander C. Seymour, a geographic information systems analyst at Duke’s Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Center, who co-led the study with Allen.
Because plastic is largely indigestible, it can lead to intestinal blockages, create a false sense of fullness or reduce energy reserves in animals that consume it. “About eight percent of the plastic that coral polyps in our study ingested was still stuck in their guts after 24 hours,” said Allen.
Further research will be needed to identify the specific additives that make the plastic so tasty to corals and determine if the same chemicals act as feeding stimulants to other marine species.
The researchers hope their findings will encourage scientists to explore the role taste plays in determining why marine organisms ingest microplastics.
“Ultimately, the hope is that if we can manufacture plastic so it unintentionally tastes good to these animals, we might also be able to manufacture it so it intentionally tastes bad,” Seymour said. “That could significantly help reduce the threat these microplastics pose.”
Allen and Seymour’s peer-reviewed study can be found here.
Actions you can take
- Find out more about nurdles
- Join a beach clean
- Join the Plastic Challange
- Help stop the plastic tide
- Learn about Deposit Return Systems
- Read our microbead ban position statement
- Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2017
Did you know?…
An area over 9 times the size of Wales is now in marine protected areas in the UK, but less than 1% is considered by MCS scientists to be well managed
Over time, one plastic bottle bobbing along in the ocean can break down in to hundreds of tiny plastic pieces
Since the carrier bag charge came in across the UK, the Great British Beach Clean has recorded 40% fewer bags on beaches
Join us today
Help protect our seas, shores and wildlifeJoin now