Guess What 90% of Seabirds Have in Common?

An estimated 90 percent of seabirds have plastic in their bellies, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The report researchers — Chris Wilcox, Erik Van Sebille and Britta Denise Hardesty — used a mixture of literature surveys, oceanographic modeling and ecological models to predict the risk of plastic ingestion to 186 seabird species globally. Their conclusion:

Impacts are greatest at the southern boundary of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans, a region thought to be relatively pristine. Although evidence of population level impacts from plastic pollution is still emerging, our results suggest that this threat is geographically widespread, pervasive, and rapidly increasing.

The fact that there’s plastic inside seabirds’ bellies should come as no surprise considering all we know about plastic pollution clogging our oceans. What’s newly troubling is that previous estimates about the number of seabirds with ingested plastic were much lower. Studies reported between 1962 and 2012 claimed 29 percent of seabirds had plastic in their gut on average. From 29 percent to 90 percent – that’s quite a leap.

Plain and simple, the new study reveals that plastics ingestion is increasing in seabirds, but that’s not all. It also predicts that by 2050 the figure will reach 99 percent of all seabird species. How much plastic is in the world’s oceans, and how dangerous is it for seabirds? Last year a study on the amount of plastic pollution floating around the world’s oceans revealed that an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons, is distributed across the ocean.

How plastic ends up inside seabirds is quite simple: Birds inadvertently feed on plastic floating on the water, mistaking it for food. In terms of its effect on seabirds—it can kill them. For example, one report by scientists studying the stomach content of Laysan Albatross chicks in the Pacific Ocean revealed that 40 percent of Laysan Albatross chicks die before fledging and that the chick’s stomachs were filled with plastic trash.

Ingested plastic debris in seabirds can cause blocking of the digestive tract, impairment of foraging efficiency and the release of toxic chemicals.

Marine biologist Boris Worm explains, “When seabirds are eating things like this, the problem is it can become lodged in their system. Also these things can accumulate toxins from the water up to 1 million-fold.”

The Center for Biological Diversity points out, “Plastic ingestion reduces the storage volume of the stomach, causing birds to consume less food and ultimately starve.”

As the new report clearly states, “the threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive and increasing.” So add this to the list of signs that we’re heading in the wrong environmental direction (like we need another one), and if we want to ensure a healthy future for oceans and its inhabitants, change begins with each one of us and the every day choices we make.

Last year we shared that an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic are floating in every square mile of our oceans, and that plastic production has increased by more than 500 percent in the last 30 years. Also disturbing: The world has lost about 230 million seabirds in 60 years, which means global seabird populations have dropped 70 percent in that time.

Of course plastic pollution in the ocean isn’t just harmful to seabirds. Fish and other marine animals are ingesting the toxic materials too, including ones that humans consume. So the next time you’re out combing the beach, instead of seashells, consider collecting plastic debris, because it not only ends up in seabirds–a single piece of plastic trash is all it takes to kill a whale.

What else can you do to reduce the number of seabirds that are flying around with plastic inside of them (besides the obvious answers, like curbing your plastic use and not littering)?

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Mark D.
Mark D3 years ago It is the moral obligation of all countries to invest in this and GET IT DEPLOYED. Cleanup of the oceans is right up there at the top of the priorities if planet Earth has a hope of surviving.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran3 years ago


Julia Cabrera-Woscek


Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell3 years ago

Thank you

Manuela C.
Manuela C3 years ago

This just breaks my heart...

Celine Russo
Celine Russo3 years ago

The news I see here are for me normality. And then I see that the "normal" people don't anything about all this and don't care. Then when they see an image of a drowned child everyone gets sentimentalistic when it should already be well known all the things that happen in the world around us. It's the news that are here that should be on newspapers and tv!

Sara G.
Sara G3 years ago

Something we all need to be aware of!

chris b.
chris B3 years ago

I don't even know why we keep dumping trash in our oceans. OUR OCEANS ARE NOT TRASH BINS!!!!! Again, 9 out of 10 living things - LIVE IN OUR OCEANS!!! People people pay attention and stop trashing our earth. good grief the stupidity

Charles Wallis
Charles Wallis3 years ago