//
you're reading...

Plastic

Turtles in the Trash: How microplastics are washing up where turtles breed

Valencia K. Beckwith, Mariana M.P.B. Fuentes. Microplastic at nesting grounds used by the northern Gulf of Mexico loggerhead recovery unit. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2018; 131: 32.

It is the scourge of the ocean. Floating with the waves, soulless, emotionless, without motivation or destination, it chokes life from the sea wherever it goes. What could this horrible fiend be? It’s plastic, and steadily and surely, we are helping it take over the ocean.

Figure 1: A nesting loggerhead sea turtle. Photo taken by Haley Watkins and shared by the Georgia Wildlife Resource Division.

Plastics can hurt sea life in a number of ways. You’ve probably seen images of birds, seals, or sea turtles trapped or killed by various plastics. Plastics bags, for example, are often eaten by turtles because the floating masses look like jellyfish, a staple food in the leatherback sea turtles’ diet. Filling their digestive tract with indigestible garbage, they eventually starve to death. Now, researchers wonder if microplastics pose a risk to sea turtles as well.

At this point, so much plastic has made its way to the ocean that there is a patch of floating plastic larger than the size of Texas, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. So why don’t we just clean it up? For one, plastics don’t stay in their original form. Floating plastics react to sunlight by degrading into smaller pieces, but not decomposing the way organic materials do. They just become smaller, tinier bits of plastic. Once the plastic particles get to a size that is less than 5mm long, they are called microplastics. These tiny plastic pieces are too small and numerous to simply haul out of the water.

Like plastic bags and other larger plastic pieces, these insidious micro particles can make their way into animal digestive tracts, especially plankton eating shellfish and the charismatic humpback whale, but they also can pollute the habitat animals are living in. This pollution is what concerns Doctors Beckwith and Fuentes, from Florida State University. If microplastics are spreading through the ocean, what does this mean for the future of sea turtles in their nesting grounds?

Figure 2: Microplastics. This photo was shared by the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Plastic and Turtle Eggs

Loggerhead sea turtles are a vulnerable species that have important nesting grounds off of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. To study the prevalence of microplastics in nesting grounds, the researchers chose ten nesting sites in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. They selected six sample sites at each of the 10 nesting grounds, where they collected the top layer of sand and brought it back to their lab. The microplastics were then separated from the sand in each sample using a salt solution; the density kept plastics floating at the surface while the sand settled. The plastics were then scooped out with a sieve, counted and weighed, then divided by color and shape.

The researchers found microplastics at each of the ten nesting sites, although there were more microplastics on Western nesting sites, likely due to the nature of the currents through the Gulf. They also noted that the majority of microplastics found (59.9%) were found in the sand dunes, the area of the beach where turtles prefer to nest. The rest of the microplastics were found at the point where high tide ended on the shoreline. The microplastics were primarily hard plastics, and mostly white and orange in color, although black and cream colored plastics were also abundant.

What the presence of microplastics at these nesting grounds means for sea turtles is still unclear. One of the primary concerns is that the presence of microplastics may change the temperature of the sand the eggs are laid in. The sex of turtles is not determined by genetics like in humans, but is actually determined by the temperature the eggs are kept at before the turtles hatch. Warmer temperatures mean that females hatch from the eggs. This is concerning considering in the Great Barrier Reef, warmer regions had sea turtle hatches that were skewed heavily towards females; 99.1% of the juvenile sea turtles found were female. Microplastics may keep sand warmer than it would be otherwise since they have a higher specific heat than the sand, only exacerbating the problem. The color of the microplastics could also dictate how they change the temperature of the sand; darker microplastics could absorb heat and warm the sand, while lighter particles could reflect sunlight and keep it cooler. Additionally, decaying plastics release chemicals that can alter estrogen in turtles, affecting their reproduction and possibly making the turtles less fertile. How much of a threat this poses to the species in general, however, is still uncertain.

What can we do?

Figure 3: Plastic debris in Hawaii. Photo originally shared in the NOAA photo library. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

While scientists still aren’t sure how these microplastics will impact sea turtles when they are nesting, we do know that the ubiquitous nature of plastic pollution means micoplastics are a threat all turtles face. Reducing our plastic use is the best way to combat this issue. While recycling plastic is important, it doesn’t make up for all the new plastic we make on a daily basis. Banning plastic straws may help ease some of the guilty feelings we get when we see a video of a poor sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose, but it is such a tiny portion of the problem that the action is more symbolic than helpful. The spirit of the action, however, is in the right direction. Carry around a metal straw if you need one. Use a reusable water bottle. Use glass containers for your food instead of plastic (you’ll even be able to put them in the microwave). When you purchase food at the grocery store, opt for a glass can instead of plastic if you can, and bring reusable bags. Get your own travel coffee mug that you use in the morning. Avoid products, like hand sanitizer, with microbeads in them. More than all of these things, share what you’re doing with your friends and family. The steps are small, but together they can make a big difference in our plastic footprint, and in the lives of sea turtles.

Discussion

One Response to “Turtles in the Trash: How microplastics are washing up where turtles breed”

  1. Horrible that we are doing so much harm to the sea animals. Plastic is everywhere. It’s very hard to avoid contributing to this mess for all our groceries and clothing come in plastic. Frustrating!

    Posted by Anne | August 7, 2018, 11:38 am

Post a Comment

Instagram

  • by oceanbites 2 months ago
    Happy Earth Day! Take some time today to do something for the planet and appreciate the ocean, which covers 71% of the Earth’s surface.  #EarthDay   #OceanAppreciation   #Oceanbites   #CoastalVibes   #CoastalRI 
  • by oceanbites 3 months ago
    Not all outdoor science is fieldwork. Some of the best days in the lab can be setting up experiments, especially when you get to do it outdoors. It’s an exciting mix of problem solving, precision, preparation, and teamwork. Here is
  • by oceanbites 4 months ago
    Being on a research cruise is a unique experience with the open water, 12-hour working shifts, and close quarters, but there are some familiar practices too. Here Diana is filtering seawater to gather chlorophyll for analysis, the same process on
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #oceanbites  we are featuring Hannah Collins  @hannahh_irene  Hannah works with marine suspension feeding bivalves and microplastics, investigating whether ingesting microplastics causes changes to the gut microbial community or gut tissues. She hopes to keep working
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    Leveling up - did you know that crabs have a larval phase? These are both porcelain crabs, but the one on the right is the earlier stage. It’s massive spine makes it both difficult to eat and quite conspicuous in
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Cierra Braga. Cierra works ultraviolet c (UVC) to discover how this light can be used to combat biofouling, or the growth of living things, on the hulls of ships. Here, you
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Elena Gadoutsis  @haysailor  These photos feature her “favorite marine research so far: From surveying tropical coral reefs, photographing dolphins and whales, and growing my own algae to expose it to different
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on Oceanbites we are featuring Eliza Oldach. According to Ellie, “I study coastal communities, and try to understand the policies and decisions and interactions and adaptations that communities use to navigate an ever-changing world. Most of
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Jiwoon Park with a little photographic help from Ryan Tabata at the University of Hawaii. When asked about her research, Jiwoon wrote “Just like we need vitamins and minerals to stay
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring  @riley_henning  According to Riley, ”I am interested in studying small things that make a big impact in the ocean. Right now for my master's research at the University of San Diego,
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Gabby Stedman. Gabby is interested in interested in understanding how many species of small-bodied animals there are in the deep-sea and where they live so we can better protect them from
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Shawn Wang! Shawn is “an oceanographer that studies ocean conditions of the past. I use everything from microfossils to complex computer models to understand how climate has changed in the past
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    Today we are highlighting some of our awesome new authors for  #WriterWednesday  Today we have Daniel Speer! He says, “I am driven to investigate the interface of biology, chemistry, and physics, asking questions about how organisms or biological systems respond
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    Here at Oceanbites we love long-term datasets. So much happens in the ocean that sometimes it can be hard to tell if a trend is a part of a natural cycle or actually an anomaly, but as we gather more
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    Have you ever seen a lobster molt? Because lobsters have exoskeletons, every time they grow they have to climb out of their old shell, leaving them soft and vulnerable for a few days until their new shell hardens. Young, small
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    A lot of zooplankton are translucent, making it much easier to hide from predators. This juvenile mantis shrimp was almost impossible to spot floating in the water, but under a dissecting scope it’s features really come into view. See the
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    This is a clump of Dead Man’s Fingers, scientific name Codium fragile. It’s native to the Pacific Ocean and is invasive where I found it on the east coast of the US. It’s a bit velvety, and the coolest thing
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    You’ve probably heard of jellyfish, but have you heard of salps? These gelatinous sea creatures band together to form long chains, but they can also fall apart and will wash up onshore like tiny gemstones that squish. Have you seen
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    Check out what’s happening on a cool summer research cruise! On the  #neslter  summer transect cruise, we deployed a tow sled called the In Situ Icthyoplankton Imaging System. This can take pictures of gelatinous zooplankton (like jellyfish) that would be
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    Did you know horseshoe crabs have more than just two eyes? In these juveniles you can see another set in the middle of the shell. Check out our website to learn about some awesome horseshoe crab research.  #oceanbites   #plankton   #horseshoecrabs 
WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com