Due to high pollution levels, plastic debris is starting to crowd the oceans. Because of its consistency, marine predators often mistake the trash for food and ingest it. Researchers found that some seabirds eat plastic debris because the remnants contain a substance that makes them smell delicious.
According to a study that was published this Wednesday in the Science Advances magazine, plastic looks and smell appetizing for some bird species.
Roughly 10 million tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year, 90 percent of seabirds gulping it up. Scientists hope that by discovering the reason why the animals are attracted to the debris, they might be able to make it look or smell less appetizing, thus saving the birds from intoxicating with the stray plastic items.
Matthew Savoca, an ecology Ph.D. candidate at California University, declared that even though animals seem to act stupid from the point of view of humans, sometimes it is helpful to step into their shoes or wings in this case.
Savoca continued by saying that the birds are the result of millions of years of evolution and they managed to survive for such a long time due to their intelligence and survival skills. When seabirds eat plastic debris, they do so because the material looked and smelled like food, from their point of view it could not be anything besides food.
Visually, plastic can be mistaken for either jellyfish or small fish. However, researchers found that species like petrels, albatrosses, and shearwaters tend to rely more on their sense of smell than on their eyesight when hunting for food.
More particularly, their brains are trained to sense the presence of dimethyl sulfide, an algae byproduct. As algae are the primary food source of small fish, which are the main dish of seabirds, the latter have evolved to search for food that looks like fish and smells like dimethyl sulfide.
The problem is that algae attach themselves to everything, including plastic bags. When it does that, it makes the plastic debris smell exactly like the birds’ prey, thus tricking them into eating it.
Savoca suggests that plastic manufacturers could come up with a solution that will make it harder for the algae to attach itself to it. Of course, a more simple solution would be to stop dumping plastic into the ocean and clean the waters.
Image source: Wikipedia