Sea turtles are mistaking plastic pollution for food

"Research like this helps us understand what sea turtles are eating, and whether certain kinds of plastic are being ingested more than others."

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Endangered green sea turtles are accidentally ingesting plastic that resembles their food source concludes a new study published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports‘.

Researchers at the University of Exeter and the Society for the Protection of Turtles studied 34 sea turtles who washed up on beaches on the island of Cyprus. The team was able to look at the gastrointestinal tracts of 19 of the turtles, all of which had ingested plastic.

The sea turtles had ingested plastic that was green, black or clear, which greatly resembled their food source, sea grass. Younger turtles were more likely to mistake plastic for food and had more plastic in their stomachs. The amount of plastic found in each of the turtles ranged from 3 to 183 pieces.

“Sea turtles are primarily visual predators — able to choose foods by size and shape — and in this study we found strong evidence that green turtles favor plastic of certain sizes, shapes, and colors,” said Emily Duncan, a researcher on the project.

“Compared to a baseline of plastic debris on beaches, the plastic we found in these turtles suggests they favour threads and sheets that are black, clear or green. The sources of this plastic might include things like black bin bags, and fragments from items such as fishing rope and carrier bags.”

The study pointed out he because of the “extremely high density” of plastics found on coastlines, at least 43 percent of cetaceans, 36 percent of sea birds, and many fish species have been found to have ingested plastic waste, according to past studies. This new study shows how vulnerable sea turtles are to plastic pollution as well.

“Research like this helps us understand what sea turtles are eating, and whether certain kinds of plastic are being ingested more than others,” said Professor Brendan Godley, co-author of the study. “It’s important to know what kinds of plastic might be a particular problem, as well as highlighting issues that can help motivate people to continue to work on reducing overall plastic consumption and pollution.”

Sea turtles and other marine creatures are constant victims of plastic pollution. When they mistake plastic for food they can develop blockages within their digestive tract, which are often fatal. A 2015 study estimated that more than 15 trillion pieces of trash are in the ocean, with this number growing every year.


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Ruth Milka started as an intern for NationofChange in 2015. Known for her thoughtful and thorough approach, Ruth is committed to shedding light on the intersection of environmental issues and their impact on human communities. Her reporting consistently highlights the urgency of environmental challenges while emphasizing the human stories at the heart of these issues. Ruth’s work is driven by a passion for truth and a dedication to informing the public about critical global matters concerning the environment and human rights.