Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere And Not A Bite To Eat
by Dr Qamar Schuyler
The tiny chick gives a violent heave and a stream of water, bile, and surprisingly large chunks of plastic comes spewing out of its gaping beak. I feel a twinge of revulsion mixed with deep concern…not too dissimilar from what I felt nursing my own child through bouts of gastro.
I have just watched a video produced by the BBC, part of a program called Drowning in Plastic. It is distressing on many levels; imagining the suffering of the chick; feeling helpless for the chick’s parents, who, by feeding them with regurgitated plastic are inadvertently dooming them; and feeling a horrible sense of responsibility, that it is me and the other members of my species who have created this dystopian scene.
As a biologist studying where plastic comes from, where it goes to, and the impacts it has, this scene is eerily familiar to me, but I want to know more. Peter Puskic is a PhD student working on these very birds; flesh-footed shearwaters living on Lord Howe Island. He tells me about 79 % of live shearwaters that undergo lavage, or forced regurgitation, have plastic in their stomach. But even more confronting is that when they investigate the dead birds, every single one has been fed plastics by its parents. Every one. But plastic ingestion is not just a problem for birds living on remote islands. Peter also works with Pacific Gulls living in Launceston. They forage and eat locally in the Launceston area, yet when he studies their boluses, or vomit, they are filled with glass, metal, and plastics.
Now, this is sobering news indeed, but Peter and his lab group are also studying the impacts from these plastics. We know that plastics can kill birds by blocking their digestive tract or by puncturing their stomach. However, scientists are still working to understand the so-called sublethal effects – the things that don’t cause death immediately, but that may still harm the animal. Peter’s lab has discovered that birds that eat plastics have higher levels of cholesterol and uric acid, and lower body fitness scores than those that don’t. While this isn’t a death sentence, the long-term implications for the health of the birds are unknown.
One way to try to understand the potential implications is by doing laboratory studies. Dr. Lauren Roman recently finished her PhD. As part of her studies, Lauren fed quail plastics that had been soaked in seawater for six months, and documented the impacts on three generations of animals. Lauren investigated whether these plastics had any effects on the bodily organs, reproduction, body condition, and too many other things to count. After all of that, the only effects she was able to find were a few minor health effects, including slightly delayed growth and a higher chance of cysts in the reproductive tracts of males. While this raises a red flag for whether plastic affects reproduction in other species, for quail these cysts caused no detectable ill effects.
I leave these conversations feeling like we have so much more to learn, and I watch one last clip from the BBC special. This one really hits me in the guts. At the Citarum River, in Java, Indonesia, an enormous raft of plastic over a mile long has appeared literally overnight, choking the river. In a place where men used to make their livelihoods by fishing for food, they now fish out plastic bottles to sell. The number of fish species present has been reduced by 60%. While there may be scientific debate on the sub-lethal ramifications of ingested plastics to wildlife, one thing is clear. Our plastic obsession is slowly, but surely, drowning us in a sea of plastic.
To watch the BBC film, head to facebook.com/thehobart.
This article is part of a series featuring early career researchers; scientists in the beginning phase of their careers.
Follow Qamar on Twitter @Qamarsky