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A New Disease is Threatening Wildlife – 'Plasticosis'

Flesh-Footed Shearwater. Image credit: Jenn Lavers

The massive influx of plastic waste into our oceans is one of the most significant environmental crises currently impacting global wildlife, and with plastic production set to triple by 2060, it’s likely to become much worse. Blockage of digestive tracts from plastic ingestion and entanglement in plastic waste have been the two key concerns, but a recent study has identified a new disease negatively impacting wildlife, and it’s caused by plastic.

What is Plasticosis?

Plasticosis affected tissue on the left showing heavy scarring (blue), healthy tissue on the right. Image credit: Hayley Charlton-Howard

When digestive tissues are damaged, such as by sharp pieces of plastic, they are repaired through a process called fibrosis. Fibrosis is carried out by cells called fibroblasts which deposit a connective tissue called collagen, to repair damaged tissue. The problem is that when this is done repeatedly and extensively, the build up of scar tissue can inhibit the functioning of the digestive tract, making it less effective at absorbing nutrients. Ultimately, this can result in infection, reproductive failure, and death.

Researchers studied the effects of other ingested items, in order to be sure that the root cause of what they were seeing was plastic. They found that the disease they were looking at was caused exclusively by the ingestion of pieces of plastic debris. As a result, they named the disease 'plasticosis'.

What Species are Affected?

Flesh-Footed Shearwater. Image credit: Lilian Stewart

The researchers leading the study, including scientists from the British National History Museum, studied the impact of plastic ingestion on seabirds in Australia. The study species chosen, were flesh-footed shearwaters, a bird currently listed as 'near threatened' by IUCN, and a species that is known to ingest large quantities of plastic. During the study, researchers found that plasticosis wasn’t limited to older birds unwittingly ingesting plastic – birds of all age classes were affected, included chicks. Like many birds, flesh-footed shearwaters regurgitate food for their chicks, and during this process, plastic debris is also regurgitated and passed on.

One of the worrying finds of the research, is that even birds with the lowest levels of plastic in their digestive system exhibited extensive plasticosis. Given how severe plasticosis can become with even a low load of plastic in the digestive tract, any animal ingesting even small quantities of plastic, could be at risk.

What Does this Mean for Wildlife?

This is the first study to research plasticosis in the wild, and whilst the study focused only on one species, it’s highly likely that the disease is negatively impacting the health of other marine birds, and it’s unlikely to be limited to birds. Any animal ingesting sharp pieces of plastic could be susceptible, and with plastic waste now prevalent from deep-sea trenches to the summit of Mount Everest, and plastic waste expected to triple by 2060, the situation is likely to get worse:

  • 90% of the world’s seabirds have plastic in their digestive system: this may increase to 99% by 2050. The problem seems particularly severe in Australia, with Europe faring slightly better due to a reduction in the use of plastic pellets, which birds often mistake for fish eggs.

  • Seabirds are ecosystem engineers: by feeding at sea and defecating at land, they transport nutrients – often thousands of miles – that support plant growth, providing habitat for other species. Losing seabirds would negatively impact many habitats, and the species that they support.

There are still a lot of questions that need answering about plasticosis, such as how long different species can survive with this condition, which other species are worst affected, and how widespread it is, but flesh-footed shearwaters may well be the canary in the coal-mine. The identifying of plasticosis serves as a global warning about all wild animals known to ingest plastic, and time will tell if this is to include humans.


Link to original paper: Click me

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