Microplastic pollution can harm the gut health of wild seabirds, a new study published on Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution found.
Although scientists have known for a while that seabirds ingest plastic particles while feeding, the new study shows that these tiny plastic particles can disrupt the complex mix of good and bad bacteria in seabirds’ guts, leading to gut dysbiosis, a condition where an imbalance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the stomach can occur.
The researchers, led by Gloria Fackelmann of Ulm University in Germany, analyzed plastic-infested digestive tracks from two species of Atlantic seabirds, Cory’s shearwaters and northern fulmars. They found that the seabirds’ guts showed a decrease in mostly beneficial naturally occurring bacteria and an increase in potentially harmful pathogens.
They also found an increase in antibiotic-resistant and plastic-degrading microbes, suggesting that certain microplastics may disrupt the birds’ gut microbiome with chemicals.
Like humans, birds have a complex network of microbes, including bacteria, that live in their bodies in communities called microbiomes. Some microbes cause diseases, but most are “friendly” bacteria that are essential to digestion, immune responses, and other vital functions.
According to the researchers, the findings in seabirds support previous research and highlight the potentially harmful impacts of microplastics on animal health, including humans.
Microplastics are produced when plastic products break down in the environment and are found in all corners of the world, including the deepest ocean trenches and the top of Mount Everest.
The study highlights the critical need to address the issue of plastic pollution and its impact on the environment and wildlife.
In humans, microplastics have been detected in breast milk, blood, and placentas. The authors hope that the findings in seabirds will lead to related studies for humans.