Why Seabirds Eat So Much Plastic

Why Seabirds Eat So Much Plastic

A new study suggests that algae growing on plastic in the oceans makes it smell like dinner

Shearwater

Blue petrel, one of the seabird species that mistakes the smell of algae on plastic as food (UCD/J.J. Harrison)

By Jason Daley

Up to 90 percent of all seabirds eat plastic. In the 1960s that number was only about five percent, but by the 1980s it had risen to a staggering 80 percent. Researchers have found seabirds with all manner of plastics in their digestive tracts—bottle caps, plastic bags, broken-down rice-sized grains of plastic, synthetic clothing fibers and more, according to Laura Parker at National Geographic. It’s one of the factors contributing to a stomach-churning 70 percent drop in seabird numbers since the 1950s.

But bottle caps and Barbie doll heads don’t really look like the small fish and krill many seabirds favor for their meals. So why do so many species of birds actively hunt down these chunks of plastic? A new study in the journal Science Advances suggests that certain chemicals on the plastics mimic the smell of food, tricking the birds into thinking that these colorful bits are lunch, reports Chelsea Harvey at The Washington Post. Read more.