Sea Turtles Are Attracted to the Smell of Marine Plastic

A turtle swims toward a plastic bag

Image: Troy Mayne/WWF

As the World Wildlife Fund explained, research suggests that 52% of the world’s turtles have eaten plastic waste. Previously scientists thought that turtles ingest so much plastic only because a floating plastic bag can look like a lot of jellyfish, algae, or other species that make up a large component of the sea turtles’ diets.

But now, scientists have discovered that turtles mistake the scent of plastic for food. In a study published Monday in Current Biology, researchers studied loggerhead turtles in captivity and discovered that they ignored the scents of clean plastic and water but responded to the smell of food and ocean-soaked plastics. 

The Attraction to Plastic: As the BBC explained,

  • Once plastic has been released into the ocean, microbes, algae, plants and tiny animals start to colonize it and make it their home. This creates food-like odors, which have been shown to be a magnet for fish and possibly sea birds. The new research suggests sea turtles are attracted to “bio-fouled” plastic for the same reason.
  • Marine predators like sea turtles, whales, and sea birds forage over a vast area to find food and it makes sense that they would use chemicals in the air or water to do so.
  • Turtles and other creatures are being attracted from probably long distances away to garbage patches out in the open ocean.

As Earther clarified, it’s not totally clear why turtles find the smell of biofouled plastic so appetizing, which means it will be an area for future research.

  • It’s possible that they were responding to dimethyl sulfide, a substance with a particular smell that emanates from the algae and microbes that accumulates on marine plastic.
  • They may have also been enticed by the smells of the tiny animals that accumulate on marine plastic, such as bryozoans, hydrozoans, and crustaceans.

A Death Sentence: As CNBC explained, once a turtle swallows plastic they are unable to throw it back up. As a result, most of the ingested plastic gets stuck in the turtle’s gut and limits its ability to absorb and digest food.  Just a few pieces of plastic are all that it takes to kill a sea turtle and young turtles are specifically susceptible to succumbing to death from plastic ingestion. 

Why This Matters: For over a century we’ve been making, using, and throwing away plastic with shockingly little understanding of how this substance affects our planet and the animals who call it home. Now that we’re drowning in plastic, we really need a better understanding of how it affects animals and ecosystems. This study is the first in what will likely be an ongoing body of research and all the more motivation to hold the manufacturers of plastic accountable for their products.

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