A new discovery about seabirds has big implications for the future of the our planet.
Why are seabirds acting in a very strange way? A new study claims to have the answer, and it’s an unfortunate one for the future of Earth. It turns out that seabirds are eating plastic debris floating in the ocean because it smells like food to them.
Seabirds such as albatrosses and petrels use their olfactory senses to sniff out krill, their primary prey. And because krill feeds on algae, their incredibly sensitive noses look for a telltale sign: the smell given off by algae as they die, a sort of alarm signal that brings in seabirds. But as it turns out, this algae sticks to plastic and gives off the same smell, according to the UC Davis study published in Science Advances.
Scientists floated three types of commonly found plastics in the ocean off the coast of California, tying them to buoys so they wouldn’t float away. When they reeled them in three weeks later, they found that plastics were often covered with algae and they smelled of rotting vegetation, which was probably bringing the birds to them.
“It’s important to consider the organism’s point of view in questions like this,” said lead author Matthew Savoca, who performed the study as a graduate student in the lab of UC Davis professor Gabrielle Nevitt and who is with the Graduate Group in Ecology. “Animals usually have a reason for the decisions they make. If we want to truly understand why animals are eating plastic in the ocean, we have to think about how animals find food.”