Why turtles confuse plastic for food

Posted by Imogen Searra on 11 March 2020

A new study revealed that sea turtles mistake the scent of plastic for food. These animals cannot decipher between plastic and oceanic food and consume it, which leads to a slow and painful death.

Plastic bags are often mistaken for jellyfish, a staple in a turtle’s diet. The animal will consume the bag thinking it is food. The plastic will cause a blockage in the turtle’s stomach lining. In some cases, the animal is still able to eat but is getting no nutrition. This leads to starvation and eventual death. Alternatively, it can get stuck in the animal’s airway, causing it to suffocate.

Plastic waste in the form of shopping bags, netting and bottles are a threat to all sea animals, including turtles.

In the study, published in Current Biology, scientists conducted an experiment using 15 young, captive-born loggerhead turtles. The researchers pumped airborne odours into the air above the tank that the turtles were in. The animal’s reactions were recorded on camera.

The animals reacted the same way to the odours as they did to food like fish and shrimp. When surfacing to breathe, the turtles would keep their noses out of the water for longer than normal (three times the normal duration).

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Joseph Pfaller of the University of Florida said that odours given off by floating or submerged plastics were an ‘olfactory trap’ for sea turtles.

‘Plastics that have spent time in the ocean develop smells that turtles are attracted to and this is an evolutionary adaptation for finding food, but it has now become a problem for turtles because they’re attracted to the smells from the plastics,’ he said.

Small organisms will attach to the plastic floating in the ocean. These microbes, algae, plans and microscopic animals will then emit food-like odours. Turtles and other marine animals will be attracted to the smell and consume it.

Oceanic waste is a global crisis and a threat that affects all life, including humans that rely on the ocean as a source of food and income.

Read the full study titled ‘Odors from marine plastic debris elicit foraging behavior in sea turtles’ here.

Image: Unsplash



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