It’s a well-known fact that plastics have a negative effect on the environment, and have become one of the most pressing environmental issues.  Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans, killing millions of animals, including birds, fish, and other marine organisms.

Nearly every species of seabird is plagued by plastic; however, the Flesh-footed Shearwater species are the most plastic contaminated birds on the planet.  Flesh-footed Shearwaters live on the island of Lord Howe, which is off the eastern coast of Australia.  New research has revealed that the large amounts of plastics ingested by these birds result in severe stomach damage.  Known as Plasticosis, this new disease underscores the impact of plastic pollution

Why are birds eating so much plastic?  The birds consume pieces of plastic at sea after mistaking it for food.  As a piece of plastic floats around the sea, plankton and algae form on the surface, which, over time, will produce an odor that to the birds smells like food.  Shearwaters have a strong sense of smell, which is why they are among the world’s most plastic plagued birds.

Researchers have been observing these birds for several years, and have found all types of plastic in the Shearwaters’ stomachs: from toy pieces to microplastics.  Recent studies involved performing necropsies on fledglings that either died or were euthanized due to low body mass.  Regional and widespread scarring was discovered.  This scarring causes multiple issues including reduced appetite, fewer nutrients, and poor digestion.

While the birds do not die directly from Plasticosis, the disease affects their growth, nutrition, and overall health.  Researchers believe that Plasticosis is a cause of the Shearwaters’ decreased wingspan and body size observed over the past thirteen years.

Plastic pollution continues to threaten the environment.  Many countries and municipalities are instituting bans on some types of plastic and plastic items, which is a positive step.  However, reducing the world’s reliance on plastic and finding ways to stop pollutants from entering the ocean are necessary to prevent Plasticosis and other harmful effects on birds and wildlife.

Written by Judy Cadmus