Giant Plankton May Help Move Plastic Pollution to Sea Floor

Researchers show that pinkie-size marine organisms can ingest and poop out microplastics, potentially transporting them to the depths.

By | August 16, 2017

The inner mucus filter of a giant larvacean, a member of the genus Bathochordaeus© 2017 MBARIPlastic pollution has emerged as a real threat to Earth’s ecosystems, especially in the ocean. But microscopic bits of plastic that swirl near the surface may have a route to deeper layers. Giant larvaceans, members of the marine zooplankton that swim in the upper layers of ocean waters worldwide, may be capable of ingesting microplastic pollution and transporting it to deeper parts of the sea, according to researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

“We’re really at the tip of the iceberg in understanding really where these plastics are winding up,” study coauthor and MBARI researcher Kakani Katija tells The Verge.

Katija and her colleagues performed experiments in which they fed plastic particles smaller than sand grains to the giant larvacean Bathochordaeus stygius, a frequent visitor of Monterey Bay. B. stygius, like other giant larvaceans, constructs massive nests made of mucus, which they use to filter about 11 gallons of sea water per hour. When the MBARI team members fed fluorescent microplastic bits to 25 larvaceans, they found that the majority of the planktonic organisms ingested the particles and pooped them out within 12 hours. They published their findings yesterday (August 16) in Science Advances.

When giant larvaceans excrete microplastics or when they shed their mucus feeding nets, which also trapped the particles, both sink. The authors suspect the waste may be consumed by deep sea-dwelling organisms, providing a route for the pollutants to enter new ecosystems.

“Plastics are sometimes seen as a sea surface issue, and more and more we’re seeing that’s not necessarily true,” Katija tells Science News.

Although the researchers admit that the larvaceans typically swim at depths lower than those at which microplastics float, their findings map a potential route for transfer of the pollutants to new depths. “We are finding pieces of microplastic in deep sea animals and in sea floor sediments,” Anela Choy, Katija’s MBARI colleague and a coauthor on the paper, tells Wired. “We often think of it as just a surface pollution problem, but there are many mechanisms that can transport the [plastic] pollution down from the surface.”

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Avatar of: Barry@DataSense

Barry@DataSense

Posts: 23

August 17, 2017

So we move the plastics (and other pollutants) to greater depths?

Then what?

Move the problem a little deeper?  But it won't go away!

How short sighted!

Avatar of: NatureAlley

NatureAlley

Posts: 5

Replied to a comment from Barry@DataSense made on August 17, 2017

August 17, 2017

Agree! Although the authors of the original paper may have considered the transport away from the surface as a worry, the article presented in The Scientist also gives me the feeling "what we don't see is not a worry anymore!"

Also, "poop" will disintegrate over time, else the oceans would be filled with excrement gathered over millions of years. And then what (again)? The density of plastics will make it shoot up to the surface.

I am sure that is not what recycling is meant to be like.....

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