Research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has discovered why sea turtles are so inclined to eat ocean plastic. They found that ocean plastic eventually builds a coating of algae and microorganisms that can smell like food for the sea turtles. The study, “Odors from marine plastic debris elicit foraging behavior in sea turtles,” was published March 9 in the journal Current Biology.
“This finding is important because it’s the first demonstration that the odor of ocean plastics causes animals to eat them,” said Kenneth J. Lohmann, Charles P. Postelle, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biology at Carolina. “It’s common to find loggerhead turtles with their digestive systems fully or partially blocked because they’ve eaten plastic materials. There also are increasing reports of sea turtles that have become ill and stranded on the beach due to their ingestion of plastic.”
To make sure that we do not hurt these treasured animals, we need to take steps to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans. We can recycle and dispose of plastic items such as plastic bags more responsibly, as well as use more environmentally friendly items such as paper bags. We can also buy items in bulk so that we have less plastic in each product.
To figure out how these plastics end up in the stomachs of turtles, the researchers used sea turtles in a lab to see how they would react to different substances. They tested the sea turtles with scents of turtle food, ocean-soaked plastic, clean plastic, as well as plain water. They found that the turtles ignored the scents of clean plastic and water, but instead foraged around in turtle food and the ocean-soaked plastic. They would poke their noses out of the water to examine the object they were smelling, with activity increasing as the study went on. The turtles were then safely released into the ocean.
“Very young turtles feed at the surface, and plastics that float on the surface of the ocean affect them,” said Kayla M. Goforth, a Carolina biology doctoral student who worked on the study. “Older turtles feed further down in the water column, sometimes on the ocean bottom. Regardless of where plastics are distributed in the ocean, turtles are likely to eat them.”
This study should create awareness and cause concern for our lack of responsibility in dealing with plastic. As a society, we need to unite to ensure the safety of both our future, and the future of all other forms on life on Earth.