Diagram of the gastrointestinal tract of a seabird known to commonly ingest plastics, the Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), and pieces of microplastics that were found in the stomach and faecal precursor of birds in Canada’s Labrador Peninsula. Graphic: Provencher, et al., 2018 / Science of The Total Environment

By Cheryl Katz
25 July 2018

(Hakai Magazine) – Plastics, those indestructible relics of our throwaway culture, are omnipresent in the oceans, making their way into everything from sea salt to seabirds. Now, a new study finds seabirds may be giving back, shuttling particles from ocean garbage gyres back to shore in their poop. Around colonies where seabirds congregate, the pungent white streaks may form halos of plastic pollution—contaminating soil and potentially cycling back into the sea.

The study, conducted on northern fulmars in the frigid waters off Canada’s Labrador Peninsula, is the first to measure plastics in seabird guano. The idea arose when a group of researchers studying plastic ingestion by seabirds were having coffee and pondering where the junk they found stuffing birds’ stomachs might ultimately wind up.

“We thought, let’s take a look in there and see what we find at the end of their gastrointestinal tract,” says Jennifer Provencher, a marine ecologist at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and lead author on the paper.

Local Inuit hunters collected 30 of the stocky gull-like seabirds, which nest by the tens of thousands in the rocky cliffs of Baffin Island, Nunavut. The researchers dissected the birds’ stomachs and intestinal tracts. What they found was eye-opening.

“Almost all of the birds had plastics in their stomachs,” Provencher says. “Half had microplastics in their poop.” Most of the plastics were dust-sized fibers—and most were blue, although some were black or red. Provencher is trying to figure out what the various colors mean. The excreted fragments are likely a mix of remnants of larger pieces that had been ground up during digestion and microfibers that are now ubiquitous in the environment.

The new study shows marine animals have a role in transporting plastics throughout the ecosystem, says University of Toronto ecologist Chelsea Rochman, who studies contaminants in aquatic ecosystems but was not involved in the new research. [more]

Seabirds Are Pooping Out Plastic

ABSTRACT: Plastic pollution is global environmental contaminant. Plastic particulates break down into smaller fragments in the environment, and these small pieces are now commonly found to be ingested by animals. To date, most plastic ingestion studies have focused on assessing retained plastics or regurgitated plastics, but it is likely that animals also excrete plastic and other debris items. We examined the terminal portion of the gastrointestinal tract of a seabird known to commonly ingest plastics, the Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), to determine if seabirds excrete microplastics and other debris via their guano. We also examine how guano collections may be used as an indicator of retained plastics. The frequency of occurrence of microplastics did not correlate between the gut and faecal precursor samples, but there was a positive relationship between the number of pieces of plastics in the gut and the number of microplastics in the guano. Our findings suggest that seabirds are acting as vectors of microplastics and debris in the marine environment where their guano accumulates around their colonies. This transport of microplastics and debris by colonial seabirds needs to be further examined, and considered when designing environmental monitoring for microplastics in regions where seabird colonies are found.

Garbage in guano? Microplastic debris found in faecal precursors of seabirds known to ingest plastics



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