Microplastics Are Polluting the Deep Sea

For the first time, researchers have been able to show that deep sea animals are ingesting microplastics. Microplastics, including microbeads, are falling deep into the ocean where they are then consumed by animals such as squat lobsters and sea cucumbers. The team’s findings are in a paper that was just published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that end up in the environment as a result of human activities. They can be found in soaps and cosmetics in the form of microbeads, which are slowly being pulled from the market. Other sources include certain types of manufacturing and shipping methods as well as washing clothes made from synthetic materials. Microplastics represent one of the most prevalent types of anthropogenic pollution.

Researchers from Oxford University and the University of Bristol collected deep sea animals using a remotely operated underwater vehicle. Animals were collected carefully from depths of 300 meters to 1800 meters. The team worked with Staffordshire University’s Department of Forensic and Crime Science to incorporate tried-and-true forensics methods. This helped avoid contamination issues, ensuring that any detected microplastics weren’t from laboratory equipment.

The team found that animals from three major phyla had consumed microplastics, including squat lobsters, sea cucumbers, and crabs. The plastics, which were often the same size as the animals’ natural food sources, came from a variety of sources. Further analysis revealed some of the materials: nylon, acrylic, and polyester. The authors note that they also found microplastics in deep sea sediment samples.

Microplastics are dangerous pollutants since animals can ingest them easily, often inadvertently.  They persist in the environment and are nearly impossible to remove. This new study shows that these pollutants are managing to reach even the deep sea, thousands of miles from human development. Further research is needed to see how this type of pollution affects deep sea wildlife.


L. Taylor, C. Gwinnett, L. F. Robinson, L. C. Woodall. Plastic microfibre ingestion by deep-sea organisms. Scientific Reports (2016).

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