Monday, February 4, 2013

Microplastic ingestion by seabirds: ongoing research at the Slater Museum

Plastic from a Northern Fulmar stomach 

Research on ingestion of microplastics by seabirds continues at the Slater Museum.  With the help of Shep Thorpe, VMD, we have examined additional Northern Fulmar stomachs from 2012 from the WA and OR coast.  These were recovered by Wildlife Center of the North Coast (WCNC), Sharnelle Fee director.  There was an additional bird from Ocean Shores, WA provided by Sheila McCartan, Nisqually NWR.  The Ocean Shores bird was remarkable in having 6.0 gm of plastic in the proventriculus and 1.04 gm in the ventriculus (pictured).  Some pieces were the size of guitar picks.  There was one nurdle (labeled) which is a premanufactured plastic pellet.  Typically fulmars have less than 1 gm.  The Ocean Shores bird probably had enough plastic to incapacitate it leading to its demise. 

Research continues to rely on collection of specimens by Sharnelle Fee, Wildlife Center of the North Coast and Shep Thorpe, DVM, for dissection and separation of stomach contents.  Shep expanded discovery to the intestines where he has discovered small particles of plastic, parasites and clues to causes of mortality.   

Professor Peter Hodum in Biology is directing the research with students Alicia Terepocki, Alan Brush and Olivia Feinstein.  All are presenting posters based on their research over the past year at the Pacific Seabird Conference in Portland this month.

Abstracts from the Pacific Seabird Group 40th Annual Meeting 20-24 February 2013 Portland


Alexander Brush, Gary Shugart and Peter Hodum, Biology Dept & Slater Museum., University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner, Tacoma, WA 98416 USA,

There is growing recognition that plastic pollution in our oceans has reached a critical level and must be addressed. Seabirds, especially procellariiforms, have proven to be a useful bioindicator of marine plastic debris through the monitoring of their ingestion habits. To date, most efforts in documenting procellariiform ingestion of plastic have focused on primarily surface-foraging species. There is reason to suspect, however, that pursuit diving species may not reflect the same plastic ingestion patterns. In this study, we examined the stomach contents of Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus), a species that uses both surface seizing and pursuit diving to forage. We collected samples from 26 birds from the northern Oregon/southern Washington region to quantify the frequency of occurrence, abundance, color and size of plastics in the diet. Plastic was found in 69% (18 out of 26) of specimens, which is lower than incidences of plastics in Fulmar stomachs. The abundance, color and size of plastics found in the Shearwaters will also be presented. Due to the differing feeding habits in Shearwaters versus Fulmars, it was expected that plastic categorizations would produce different results in the two species for amounts and types of plastics found. If our hope is to create a comprehensive network of seabird bioindicators of plastic debris then our knowledge base must be expanded to species that reflect a wide variety of foraging guilds, as they are likely to provide unique insights into the marine plastic issue.

Olivia Feinstein*1, Erica Donnelly2, Hannah Nevins2 and Peter Hodum1,2, 1Biology Dept., University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA, 98416 USA, 2Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, Benicia, CA
Many phthalates used to synthesize plastics have been identified as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), with studies showing dramatic deleterious effects on a variety of species as a result of exposure to growing numbers of EDCs in the environment. The Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) is an opportunistic seabird which inadvertently consumes plastics as it forages. Previous studies of Fulmars suggest that plastics are leaching EDCs into the bird’s systems. We determined the percentage of plastics ingested by fulmars that contain EDCs. A collaboration with the Long Marine Research Lab allowed for geographic comparisons of EDC concentration intensities along the West Coast. The percentage of plastics in the diet of fulmars that contained plasticizers was below 3% in all tested regions. Plastic proportions in Alaska differed significantly from those in California and Washington. Our analyses confirmed that fulmars are effective bio-indicators of plastics in surface marine environments and that the surface waters in tested regions are not highly contaminated by plastics containing EDCs. EDC-containing plastics typically displayed negative buoyancy and sank in seawater and may be accumulating in benthic regions. The impacts of plastic ingestion may be a more significant source of contaminant uptake by seabird species than previously assumed. Additionally, there are physical consequences to species; plastics take up volume in the stomach reducing digestive capacity which blocks nutrient absorption.

Alicia Terepocki*1, Erica Donnelly2, Hannah Nevins2, Gary Shugart1 and Peter Hodum1,2, 1Biology Dept & Slater Museum., University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA, 98416 USA, 2Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, Benicia, CA
Plastic pollution is increasingly recognized as an escalating threat to marine ecosystems. In the face of this developing issue, monitoring ocean-wide levels of pollution has become crucial. Successful monitoring programs utilizing Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) as bioindicators of marine plastic pollution have been instituted in northern Europe and central California. As generalist and surface feeders, fulmars are an ideal indicator due to their susceptibility to ingesting plastic debris. In this study, we examined fulmars from northern Oregon and southern Washington (n=89) to determine the frequency of occurrence, abundance, size and color of plastic ingested and make inferences about the state of marine plastic pollution in the Pacific Northwest and feeding habits of fulmars. We compared these findings with those of birds from Alaska (n=46) and California (n=44) to obtain information on regional differences in plastic pollution in the northeastern Pacific. Results suggest marine plastic densities vary regionally, in all regions plastic ingestion was prevalent.
PSG’s 40th Annual Meeting:
February 20-24, 2013 at the Portland Hilton


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