Plastic pollution, whether on a macro or micro scale, is one of the most concerning environmental problems among scientists, policy makers and the general public.
Microplastics are any plastic particles smaller than 5 mm either manufactured as small particles or originated from the fragmentation of larger plastic items. Microplastics are present in most habitats and can be accidentally ingested by a variety of organisms. However, the effects of their intake to organisms are not well understood. These particles have been detected in remote areas such as the Arctic and the Antarctic and may arrive there via three distinct routes: from local human activities, transported from other regions by atmospheric or ocean circulation or transported by organisms that migrate to these regions. For example, organisms may have ingested these microparticles in other places and excrete them in polar regions.
Gentoo penguin Pygoscelispapua is used for monitoring contamination in Antarctic marine ecosystems. This because this penguin does not migrate, moving only close to the coast to feed, and therefore it does not transport contaminants from other regions.
A study recently published in Nature aimed to assess the presence of microplastics in the gentoo penguins, as well as to identify its composition (which can vary quite a lot) and origin. This study used gentoo penguin scats collected from two islands in the Southern Ocean during the summer of 2009, Bird Island and Signy Island.
In total, 19 microplastics with 7 different compositions were identified. The most well-known and most common synthetic microfiber found was polyester, which can be the product of the degradation of larger clothing fibers from washing or the fragmentation of fishing nets and ropes, for example.
This study shows the need to carry out more experiments on the effects of these particles on living beings since they can reach even remote areas such as Antarctica.
Source: Bessa, F., Ratcliffe, N., Otero, V. etal. Microplastics in gentoo penguins from the Antarctic region. SciRep 9, 14191 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-50621-2
Author: Inês Gonçalves