Plastics floating in the ocean are a hazard for marine creatures, particularly sea turtles. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have conducted new research to try and determine precisely why sea turtles eat plastics. The team found that the reason the turtles are eating the floating plastics comes down to how the plastic smells.
The research shows that that takes only a week or piece of plastic floating the ocean to begin smelling like food to a sea turtle. The reason the plastic smells like food after a week is the coding of algae and microorganisms that gives the plastic an edible smell. The team says that its study is important because it is the first demonstration that the odor of plastics is reason sea creatures eat the material.
The researchers say that it’s common to find loggerhead turtles with their digestive systems fully or partially blocked because of plastic material. The researchers say that the most important thing that people can do is to prevent plastics from going into the ocean to begin with. Recommended practical steps include recycling, properly disposing of trash, and recyclables after a trip to the beach or on a boat. Researchers also suggest that people use paper shopping bags or reusable bags and buy large containers of drinks rather than smaller drink containers held together by plastic rings.
In the lab, the turtles smelled odors of turtle food, ocean soaked plastic, clean plastic, and water. The team says that turtles ignored the scent of clean plastic and water but respond to the odor of food and ocean soaked plastics by showing foraging behavior. Those behaviors included repeatedly poking their noses out of the water that they tried to smell the food source and increasing their activity as they search for the food. The team says that the turtles did not digest plastic during the experiment and were released in the ocean after the study.
The team notes that very young turtles feed on the surface, and plastics float on the surface of the ocean where they come in contact with the plastic. Older turtles tend to feed deeper sometimes even on the ocean bottom, but turtles of all ages are likely to eat plastic. The team notes that once plastic is in the water, there is no way to prevent it from smelling like food. The best thing to do is to keep plastics from getting into the ocean.