First evidence of deep-sea animals ingesting microplastics

“Forensic science is still a fairly new science, but we are delighted that our work and techniques are starting to inform other sciences and important environmental research such as this.”

Dr Claire Gwinnett, Associate Professor in Forensic and Crime Science

Following the news that the UK government is to ban plastic microbeads by the end of 2017, a group of scientists have discovered the first evidence of microplastics being ingested by deep-sea animals.

Dr Claire Gwinnett, Associate Professor in Forensic and Crime Science at Staffordshire University, has been working with scientists who took samples from creatures including hermit crabs, squat lobsters and sea cucumbers at two sites in the mid-Atlantic and south-west Indian Ocean at depths of between 300m and 1800m.

Using the latest forensic laboratory techniques Dr Gwinnett was able to determine the microplastics had been ingested by deep sea creatures.

The study, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), was a collaboration between the University of Oxford, the University of Bristol, the Natural History Museum in London, and Staffordshire University's Department of Forensic and Crime Science, which made sure the results were robust and the study was free from potential contamination.

Dr Gwinnett, an expert in trace evidence including microfibres, said: “Existing forensic approaches for the examination of fibres are tried and tested for their robustness and must stand up to the scrutiny of the courts of law. These techniques were employed in this research in order to effectively reduce and monitor contamination and therefore provide confidence in the fact that the microplastics found were ingested, and not from the laboratory or other external contaminant.

“Using forensic laboratory techniques, we have identified that microplastics are present in ingested material from deep sea creatures. Forensic science is still a fairly new science, but we are delighted that our work and techniques are starting to inform other sciences and important environmental research such as this.”

Microplastics are generally defined as particles under 5mm in length and include the microfibres analysed in this study and the microbeads used in cosmetics that will be the subject of a government ban. Among the plastics found inside deep-sea animals in this research were polyester, nylon and acrylic. Microplastics are roughly the same size as 'marine snow' – the shower of organic material that falls from upper waters to the deep ocean and which many deep-sea creatures feed on.

Dr Michelle Taylor of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, lead author of the study, added: “While we can't say for sure what the source of these microplastics is, it's possible they could have entered the ocean from synthetic clothing, carpet cleaning or fishing nets – there are so many of these plastics out there.

“There has been no research into the potential effects on deep-sea creatures of ingesting plastics. But, given the impact on other animals, it’s likely to be bad for their health and survival.”

The study Plastic microfibre ingestion by deep-sea organisms by M. L. Taylor, C. Gwinnett, L. F. Robinson and L. C. Woodall is available here.

 

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