Detection of Ultrafine Plastics Ingested by Seabirds using Tissue Digestion

Jennifer L. Lavers, Georgina Stivaktakis, Ian Hutton, Alexander L. Bond

Plastic debris is a major global threat to marine ecosystems and species. However, our knowledge of this issue may be incomplete due to a lack of a standardized method for quantifying ingested ultrafine particles (1 μm – 1 mm) in wildlife.

This study provides the first quantification of ultrafine plastic in seabirds using chemical and biological digestion treatments to extract plastic items from seabird gizzards. The alkaline agent, potassium hydroxide, outperformed the enzyme corolase, based on cost and efficiency (e.g., digestion time). Ultrafine plastics were observed in 7.0% of Flesh-footed Shearwater (Ardenna carneipes) gizzards collected from Lord Howe Island, Australia and accounted for 3.6% of all plastic items recovered (13 out of 359 items).

Existing methods for extracting ingested plastic from seabirds do not account for ultrafine particles, therefore our results indicate current seabird plastic loads, and the associated physical and biological impacts, are underestimated.