Why do seabirds eat plastic?


Posted: 10 Nov 2016 06:22 AM PST

If it smells like food, and looks like food, it must be food, right? Not in the case of ocean-faring birds that are sometimes found with bellies full of plastic. But very little research examines why birds make the mistake of eating plastic in the first place.

It turns out that marine plastic debris emits the scent of a sulfurous compound that some seabirds have relied upon for thousands of years to tell them where to find food, according to a study from the University of California, Davis. This olfactory cue essentially tricks the birds into confusing marine plastic with food.

The study, published Nov. 9 in the journal Science Advances, helps explain why plastic ingestion is more prevalent in some seabird species than in others. Tubenosed seabirds, such as petrels and albatross, have a keen sense of smell, which they use to hunt. They are also among the birds most severely affected by plastic consumption….


M. S. Savoca, M. E. Wohlfeil, S. E. Ebeler, G. A. Nevitt. Marine plastic debris emits a keystone infochemical for olfactory foraging seabirds. Science Advances, 2016; 2 (11): e1600395 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600395

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