Deep-sea Creatures are Ingesting Plastic Debris

October 3, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

marine animals
Squat lobster.
Photo credit: Ratha Grimes/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For the first time, scientists find evidence that microplastics are becoming integrated into deep-sea organisms.

Few places on Earth have escaped the environmental impacts of plastic pollution. Indeed, plastic debris has spread far and wide, reaching marine environments as remote as the polar regions.

A new study published in Scientific Reports presents the first evidence that plastic debris is also wreaking havoc on the ocean’s depths, penetrating all the way down to the seafloor, where it is being ingested by hermit crabs, squat lobsters, and sea cucumbers.

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A team of researchers from the universities of Oxford and Bristol found evidence of microplastics, which can enter the ocean when clothes made from synthetic fabrics are washed or from fishing line nets, in sea creatures residing at depths of between 300 meters (980 feet) and 1800 meters (5,900 feet) in the Southwest Indian Ocean.

“What's particularly alarming is that these microplastics weren't found in coastal areas but in the deep ocean, thousands of miles away from land-based sources of pollution," study lead author Michelle Taylor remarks in a press release.

Taylor and her colleagues found traces of polyester, nylon, and acrylic inside of deep-sea creatures that they collected with the help of a remotely operated underwater vehicle. These microplastics were no larger than ‘marine snow’ — the bits of organic material that fall to the ocean floor, on which many animals regularly feed.

The authors conclude that, “despite its remote location, the deep sea and its fragile habitats are already being exposed to human waste to the extent that diverse organisms are ingesting microplastics.”

Microplastics include any plastic particles that are manufactured to be microscopic, and increasingly, groups advocating for the removal and ban of microplastics from products, citing environmental concerns.

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