The Heartbreaking Reason Plastic Kills So Many Birds

Plastic waste is slowly taking over our oceans.

For years environmentalists have been warning us about “garbage patches,” swirling gyres of floating plastic bigger than entire countries.

Scientists estimate that millions of plastic trash end up in the ocean each year, a number that’s to increase tenfold in the next decade.

Related: The Dangers Of Plastic

The effects of our plastic addiction and refusal to dispose of it responsibly are worse than just the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, however. There’s also the direct impact that marine waste has on the creatures who depend on the ocean for their sustenance.

Mistaking bits of floating plastic waste for food, sea creatures consume these items, often with fatal results. But it’s not just how plastic looks that confuses wildlife. Scientists at UC Davis recently discovered that birds are also choked and poisoned by marine waste because of how it smells.

“Marine plastic debris emits the scent of a sulfurous compound that some seabirds have relied upon for thousands of years to tell them where to find food, reports Kat Kerlin for UC Davis. “This olfactory cue essentially tricks the birds into confusing marine plastic with food.”

The culprit is dimethyl sulfide, or DMS. This smelly compound is released when algae is eaten by animals like krill, one of the birds’ favorite meals. Unfortunately, it’s also released by the algae that coats floating plastic. When they smell DMS, birds assume it’s time to eat, and they swoop in on what they thing is the source. But instead of krill, it’s a plastic twist tie, bottle cap, bead or straw.

Many seabirds, like this Tristram’s storm-petrel, mistake tiny plastic particles for food, and the effects can be fatal. Credit: Sarah Youngren/© Regents of the University of California, Davis campus.

Many seabirds, like this Tristram’s storm-petrel, mistake tiny plastic particles for food, and the effects can be fatal. Credit: Sarah Youngren/© Regents of the University of California, Davis campus.

The study also found that the DMS phenomenon affects certain birds disproportionately.

“…species that don’t receive lot of attention, like petrels and some species of shearwaters, are likely to be impacted by plastic ingestion,” Nevitt said. “These species nest in underground burrows, which are hard to study, so they are often overlooked. Yet, based on their foraging strategy, this study shows they’re actually consuming a lot of plastic and are particularly vulnerable to marine debris.”

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation projects that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Related: 7 Tips For Reducing Plastic Pollution and Saving Our Marine Species

Image Credit: Thinkstock

92 comments

Jerome S
Jerome S8 months ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim V8 months ago

thanks for sharing.

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Jerome S
Jerome S9 months ago

thanks

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Jim V
Jim V9 months ago

thanks for sharing.

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Chen Boon Fook
Chen Boon Fook9 months ago

thanks

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Tin Ling L
Tin Ling L10 months ago

thanks you

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Simon L
Simon L10 months ago

noted.thanks

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill11 months ago

I much preferred when we used more glass & paper for our packaging! Both are much safer!

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Leong S
Leong S11 months ago

noted

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Dennis Hall
Dennis Hall11 months ago

Thanks.

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