Scientists have developed a new technique to assess how much plastic a seabird has eaten. It involves a quick massage and a cotton swab.
A TEAM OF AUSTRALIAN scientists has developed a new method for assessing how much plastic debris a seabird has eaten while foraging on the open ocean, leading to a better understanding of how human rubbish is affecting other species.
Plastic debris on beaches and in the ocean has increased dramatically over the last few decades due to the increased use of plastics in everyday consumer items.
Seabirds have been particularly affected by plastic pollution as they often mistake floating plastic for food.
"Seabirds earn their living out there on the oceans — they are flying, they are foraging, they are migrating, and that is where they are coming into contact with plastic," said the study's lead author, Dr Denise Hardesty.
"Often they just mistake the plastic as an appropriate prey item. They are naïve consumers, so they don't know any better."
Previous studies examining how much plastic seabirds ingest have relied upon conducting a 'lavage', a procedure where the gut is flushed repeatedly to bring out its contents. But this procedure can be stressful for the birds and often results in incomplete samples, as not all plastic fragments are dislodged from the stomach.
Another method has been to dissect dead birds that washed ashore. But this can result in biased samples as it is unknown how the birds died and if ill-health affected their plastic consumption prior to death.
The new method devised by Hardesty and her colleagues, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, involves taking samples of preening oil from live seabirds, enabling researchers to get much larger and more random samples from healthy populations.
Preening oil is produced by the uropygial gland located near the base of a bird's tail. It can be extracted by light massaging and collected using a simple swab technique.
Some components of plastic materials accumulate in preening oil after they have been ingested and absorbed by the body.
Hardesty and her colleagues measured the level of three commonly used plasticisers, called phthalates, in the preening oil of five seabird species from off the coast of Western Australia and from populations in Port Fairy, Victoria, and Heron Island in Queensland.
The team found that the levels of phthalates in preening oil correlated well with the level of plastic pollution and the foraging strategies of each bird species.
"Plastic bottles, lids, toys, take away containers — phthalates are in so many of these end-user products. They enter the environment from these products by going down stormwater drains, being dropped at beaches, and ultimately ending up in the stomachs of seabirds," Hardesty said.
Due to the widespread use of plastics, the scientists had to take extra precautions to ensure their samples were not contaminated with plastics from other sources.
"We had to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure everything we were using was clean. We did not want to bias our results and mistakenly use sampling materials that had already come into contact with plastic," Hardesty said.
Despite this, Hardesty said the new procedure is quick and efficient, and is much less stressful for the birds.
She is hopeful the technique can be used for other wildlife, including turtles and dugongs, which are also at risk of ingesting plastic debris.
While these animals do not produce preening oil, Hardesty said the levels of plasticisers in these species can potentially be measured in fatty tissue taken using small biopsies.