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Marine Life Impacted by Plastic Pollution New Research Shows

29th April 2020
To investigate the impact of microplastic exposure, the research team divided hermit crabs between experimental tanks, half containing microplastics while the other half had no plastic To investigate the impact of microplastic exposure, the research team divided hermit crabs between experimental tanks, half containing microplastics while the other half had no plastic

New marine research from Queen’s University Belfast and Liverpool John Moores University reveals how the microplastic pollution crisis is threatening biodiversity.

Currently up to 10 per cent of global plastic production ends up in the sea although the understanding of how this affects marine life is limited. The research, published today in Biology Letters, focused on the impact of plastics on hermit crabs, which play an important role in balancing the marine ecosystem.

Hermit crabs do not develop their own shells but instead, take shells from snails to protect their soft abdomens. As a hermit crab grows over the years, it will need to find a succession of larger and larger shells to replace the ones that have become too small. These shells are vital in protecting and enabling hermit crabs to grow, reproduce and survive.

The researchers found that when hermit crabs were exposed to microplastics, they were less likely to later touch or enter high-quality shells. Dr Gareth Arnott, lead researcher from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University, explains: “Our research shows that exposure to microplastics can have important effects on animal behaviour. More specifically, in this case, it had a detrimental effect on shell selection behaviour in hermit crabs. As this behaviour is vital for hermit crab survival and reproduction, there could be important long-term consequences.”

To investigate the impact of microplastic exposure, the research team divided hermit crabs between experimental tanks, half containing microplastics while the other half had no plastic. After five days, the hermit crabs were moved into low-quality shells with the option for alternative high-quality shells offering more protection.

Dr Arnott added: “Our research shows for the first time how microplastics are disrupting and causing behavioural changes among the hermit crab population. These crabs are an important part of the ecosystem, responsible for ‘cleaning up’ the sea through eating up decomposed sea-life and bacteria. By providing a hard, mobile surface, hermit crabs are also walking wildlife gardens. They host over 100 invertebrate species – far more than live snails or non-living substrates. Additionally, commercially valuable species prey on hermit crabs, such as cod, ling, and wolf-fish. With these findings of effects on animal behaviour, the microplastic pollution crisis is, therefore, threatening biodiversity more than is currently recognised so it is vital that we act now to tackle this issue before it becomes too late."

Published in Marine Science
Betty Armstrong

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Betty Armstrong

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Betty Armstrong is Afloat and Yachting Life's Northern Ireland Correspondent. Betty grew up racing dinghies but now sails a more sedate Dehler 36 around County Down.

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.

 

At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
  • The ocean provides the greatest amount of the world’s protein consumed by humans
  • Plastic affects 700 species in the oceans from plankton to whales.
  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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