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Seabirds At Risk For Ingesting Inedible Compounds

First Posted: Nov 14, 2016 03:00 AM EST

Nearly every seabird is eating plastic. The number is expected to increase further as the global production of plastic rises. A new study has found that plastic emits the scent of a sulfurous compound, something seabirds used to find food making them eat plastic thinking it is food.

In a new study published in the journal Science Advances by researchers from the University of California at Davis, they found that plastic compounds are widely found in the oceans. In fact, they found alarming results that these compounds are ingested by about 90 percent of seabirds across the globe, with a possibility that every seabird will eat plastic by 2050.

The researchers found a wide spectrum of plastic compounds inside birds like bottle caps synthetic fibers from clothing and bags. In the 1960s, scientists have started tracking plastic ingestion among seabirds and found it inside the stomachs of fewer than 5 percent. However, in the 1980s, the number increased to 80 percent.

The big question was, how did seabirds find plastic appetizing? The study found that drifting plastic waste accumulates algae. As a result, these give off a smell similar to the krill that many seabirds feed on. This finding sheds light on why seabirds like shearwaters and albatrosses feed on plastic they find in the ocean.

"It's important to consider the organism's point of view in questions like this," said lead author Matthew Savoca in a news release by University of California at Davis.

"Animals usually have a reason for the decisions they make. If we want to truly understand why animals are eating plastic in the ocean, we have to think about how animals find food," he added.

To land to their findings, the researchers placed beads made of the three most common types of plastics -- poly-propylene, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene. After collecting them three weeks later, food and wine chemist Susan Ebeler analyzed the specimen and found smelled like dimethyl sulfide (DMS), the chemical released by algae.

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