Don't Eat the Plastic, Bird!

by Randy Lau

We have all seen seagulls or any kind of seabird fly around beaches before. We have also seen all the trash littered on beaches and in the ocean. Because of all the debris, mostly plastic, around the area, seabirds prey on these abandoned items and make a meal out of them, which of course causes them extreme harm. Why do seabirds eat these plastic items? Do they find them tantalizing? Very recently, scientists may have found an answer to this bizarre eating habit that birds partake in.

Over 90 percent of all seabirds consume plastic. During the 1960s, that percentage was only at about 5, however during the 1980s it was rising to be about 80 percent. According to Laura Parker at National Geographic, researchers have found seabirds consuming things like: plastic bags, bottle caps, cloths, plastic broken down into tiny pieces, the list goes on. This plastic digestion is one of the main causes to why the seabird population dropped 70 percent in the 1950s. All these plastic items do not remotely look anything like food the birds eat; they may look appealing to the eye but are not anything edible. A recent study in the journal Science Advances has suggested an explanation to this phenomenon, which explains that chemicals in the material may have something to do with this strange habit.


The plastic has a distinct smell that mimics the aroma of food, which fools seabirds into believing that it is a meal ready to be eaten, reported Chelsea Harvey at The Washington Post. Ocean algae develop this chemical called dimethyl sulfide (DMS) when they are being consumed by krill, which are little creatures that inhabit much of the ocean. Hypothetically, the chemical produced is a type of connection that links birds and algae. The birds smell the chemical in the air and go in trying to snack on some krill. However, plastic gathers in the ocean and over time it collects algae and other microscopic creatures on the ocean surface, which radiates the DMS to birds in the area. Gabriella Nevitt of the University of California Davis states, “What we think is going on is that the plastic is emitting a cue that is getting [the birds] into moods to eat.”

To test this hypothesis, researchers composed an experiment to see if this was really the case. Researchers filled three different types of plastic bags (high-density polyethene, poly-propylene, and low-density polythene) with mesh bags full of beads, and then sent them away on buoys into the ocean. After three weeks of soaking in the ocean a sun, researchers analyzed the plastic at UC Davis’s Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. The results showed that the beads placed within the bags radiated high amounts of DMS, while plastic not in the ocean never gave off DMS. Researchers also teased through 55 studies to figure out which birds are most likely to digest plastic, reported Hannah Devlin at The Guardian. Through their search, they found that procellariform birds, which include albatrosses and petrels, are more likely to eat plastic than other seabirds.

In the near future, scientists hope to create plastic that does not produce as much algae. “[The study] provides a salient mechanism for how this group of birds might be detecting plastic and consuming it,” states Nevitt. “And once you have a better idea of how a mechanism might work, you’re in a better position to potentially medicate it.” Yet, introducing a new type of plastic is difficult, even harder by making it less attractive to algae. The best solution is to simply prevent plastic from going into the ocean. The next time you throw away a bottle, remember, you may be endangering a bird’s life.