Sea creatures may be eating all that plastic because it tastes delicious.
Poor dumb turtles and fish, always chomping on the ubiquitous plastic in the water by accident — or so the story went, until a handful of recent studies suggested sea creatures may actually be choosing to eat plastic.
In one of these experiments, researchers took single grains of sand and particles of microplastic — both around the same size and shape — and dropped them onto coral polyps. The tiny creatures responded to the plastic the same way they would to a tasty piece of food, stuffing the bits of trash into their mouths like so many Snickers Minis.
“Plastics may be inherently tasty,” Austin Allen, a study coauthor and marine science doctoral student at Duke University, told the Washington Post.
Coral polyps rely on chemical sensors — taste buds, essentially — to determine whether something is edible or not. And they were repeatedly chosing to swallow plastic during the study. Only once in 10 trials did a polyp make the same mistake with sand. In fact, the cleaner and fresher and more plastic-y the plastic was, the more readily the coral gulped it down.
While the long-term effects of the plastic-saturation of the planet are still unknown, this research suggests that accidentally tasty microplastics could pose an extra hazard to already beleaguered corals around the world.