Plastic smells like food to sea turtles, scientists say

Katie Ramirez
March 12, 2020

Previously, it was thought the turtles were attracted to plastic waste because they mistook it for prey, confusing things like plastic bags for jellyfish. According to the scientists involved, this is the first paper to show the smell of plastic could be encouraging animals to eat it.

In lab tests, scientists enticed young loggerhead sea turtles with the smell of biofouled plastic both with and without different meal offerings, including fish and shrimp meal and the biofouled plastic itself.

"It takes as little as half a gram of plastics to kill a juvenile sea turtle, which means even minimal exposure can be lethal", said Mallos. Stuff like tiny microbial organisms and algae are caught up in the plastic and soon the unsafe material begins to smell like food rather than human trash.

"I can imagine that a ghost fishing net drifting at the surface, serving as artificial substrate for a diverse community of rafting organisms, will emit these chemical cues on a scale appropriate for detection on the open ocean", writes Siuda in an email "But, are individual pieces of plastic small enough to be ingested by a sea turtle going to elicit the same behavioral response and at what distances?"

The turtles ignored clean plastic and the smell of water, but were drawn to plastics that smelled like food.

Researchers found that there was no difference in the behavior of the turtles when either the soaked plastic or the food smells were introduced, making the scientists further believe that the turtles really can not distinguish the difference between the two.

The researchers said future studies are needed to better understand which smells pique the turtles' interest. "There also are increasing reports of sea turtles that have become ill and stranded on the beach due to their ingestion of plastic".

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Professor Kenneth Lohmann, of North Carolina University and who also worked on the study, added: "It's common to find loggerhead turtles with their digestive systems fully or partially blocked because they've eaten plastic materials".

"The wandering plastic straw in the nose of a turtle or a random plastic bag, sure they are absolute problems, but anything that can grow can produce bacteria and animals that the turtles want to eat, so it smells like something that they should review and possibly consume, which can lead to his death, "said Dr. Pfaller".

"Older turtles feed further down in the water column, sometimes on the ocean bottom", she continued.

Once the study was finished, the turtles were released back into the wild. These areas may draw in marine mammals, fish and birds because the area smells like a good foraging ground.

Scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published a new study on March 9 that floating plastic in the ocean releases a similar odour as food do.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

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