Birds Digest Plastic Faster Than Previously Thought, and That's Bad News

ocean plastic albatross photo

Photo credit: angrysunbird/Creative Commons

The oceans, we know, are filled with tiny bits of plastic detritus, which have washed out to sea—via storm drains and irrigation canals—from coastal and inland littler piles. Once it's in the ocean, this plastic pollution collects in gyres and is mistaken as food by birds.

It has long been thought that, once consumed, this plastic sits in a bird's gut for years, defying natural digestion. New research, however, reveals that the process is much faster—and this is bad news for birds and ocean ecosystems alike.

northern fulmar bird photo

A northern fulmar. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

"Up to now the attitude has always been: it will take years before that plastic passes through the birds' stomachs," explained Jan Andries van Franeker, the research who uncovered the new findings, "but that turns out not to be true."

SLIDESHOW: An Ocean of Plastic...In Birds' Guts

Van Franeker looked at fulmars in Antarctica. They arrive with stomachs full of plastic but, because plastic pollution is minimal in Antarctica, were exposed to little during the summer. His observations revealed that as much as three quarters of the plastic in a fulmar's stomach is digested within a month.

This means that sea birds are absorbing toxins from plastic pollution at a much faster rate than was previously thought. Furthermore, it means that birds—which excrete tiny bits of plastic they can't digest—are vectors for the spread of the pollution.

Though the pieces are small, the impact could be immense. "If you are talking about birds that fly to Antarctica after wintering elsewhere," Van Franeker says, "they are bringing in a few tons of micro-plastic that wasn't there before."

Read more about ocean plastic:
TreeHugger Joins 5 Gyres To Sail The South Pacific In Search Of Plastic Pollution
First Evidence of Plastic in the South Pacific: Is This a Different Kind of Garbage Patch?
Tutuma, The Man That Has Been Picking Plastic From Beaches For 7 Years At Easter Island

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