An Australian research team found that seabirds along Australia’s coast, including vulnerable and threatened species, are regularly consuming human debris. Trash ingestion was related to the feeding strategies of specific species, with seabirds more likely to consume debris that resembled their natural food sources. The details are in a paper just published in the journal PloS One.
A large amount of anthropogenic debris, litter from human activities, ends up in the ocean. It’s well-known that wild animals end up consuming some of this trash but there has never been a study focused on seabirds. A team of researchers performed necropsies on 378 seabirds that had been found dead by animal welfare groups, wildlife hospitals, and citizen scientists. 61 different species from 9 different taxonomic orders were represented in the sample. The researchers inspected the birds’ stomach contents to see what types of debris were ingested.
Nearly one quarter of the birds had ingested some kind of anthropogenic debris, including over 30% of the represented species. Different types of debris were found in birds with different feeding habits. For example, birds that feed on the surface were more likely to consume floating objects such as balloons. Seabirds that dive into the ocean for food tended to ingest fishing hooks and other sinking debris. Birds were especially likely to consume objects that resembled their natural food items; short-tailed shearwaters consistently consumed red and orange balloons. The authors speculate that this is because the balloons resemble their natural food source, red arrow squid. Habitat also played a role, with coastal birds more likely to consume fishing debris such as lures.
This study was the first to properly investigate the frequency of debris consumption by seabirds. Litter is a huge source of pollution in oceans and has negative effects on the native wildlife, including marine birds. The westland petrel, Gould’s petrel, Buller’s albatross, and Shy albatross are threatened or near-threatened species that were all found to ingest trash. Understanding the patterns in litter consumption can help conservation efforts and bring attention to the problem of anthropogenic debris.
Lauren Roman et al. Anthropogenic Debris Ingestion by Avifauna in Eastern Australia. PloS One (2016).