Plastics and contaminants, studying the link

The overall research objective that I find myself continually, and increasingly, drawn to is how wildlife are affected by, and deal with cumulative effects. In wildlife for example we are concerned about how contaminants may affect birds (see here for more on mercury and birds). Additionally,  for many birds we are also concerned with the impacts from the habitat destruction, increases in predation, changes in parasitism, decrease in their prey species such as fish stocks and for some species the effects of regularly ingesting plastic pollution. When a species experiences more than one, and sometimes many, of these stressors or burdens that can led to negative impacts we refer to it as cumulative effects. It is basically like a double whammy. If each of the burdens is independently causing a negative effect, when they have multiple burdens they are potentially being kicked when they are already down.

I have posted some of the work that we do with looking for ingested plastics in marine birds (here and here). To date I have mostly worked on looking for and categorizing plastics in marine birds as a way to demonstrate that plastic pollution is widespread, and birds even in the High Arctic are not immune to this type to pollution. This is just a sample of some of the plastics we find in Arctic marine birds.

Plastics from a thick-billed murre breeding in the Arctic

Plastics from a thick-billed murre breeding in the Arctic

Ingested plastics from a northern fulmar breeding in Arctic Canada

Ingested plastics from a northern fulmar breeding in Arctic Canada








We know that plastics can lead to a number of negative impacts in birds. Ingested plastics can also damage and physically obstruct a bird’s digestive tract. This can lead to reduced feeding by birds that have ingested large pieces or quantities of plastics. Studies have also shown that birds that have higher levels of plastics have slower growth rates. In some extreme cases, for example, Laysan Albatross chicks eat so much plastic as chicks that it has been suggested that many chicks simply starve before they can even really leave the nest.

With the study of plastics growing there have been several groups that are investigating the link between what I think of as micro-contaminants (i.e. chemicals) and macro-contaminants (i.e. plastics and other debris). Plastics themselves are made with a large range of chemicals, including  bisphenol B and phthalates which have been shown to have negative effects on metabolic processes. Once plastics are in the ocean they also pick up additional micro-contaminants from the water such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Marine plastic pollution has been shown to concentrate PCBs and other chemicals resulting in higher levels of these contaminants to be found on the surface of these plastics than in the water environment. So the question becomes, if there are all these contaminants on marine plastics, what happens to those when the plastic is ingested by a marine bird?

With new support announced on February 17th now we are going to be able to take our work one step further and help add to the growing number of people who are examining the link between plastics and contaminants in wildlife. Along with colleagues at Memorial University, Acadia University and Environment and Climate Change Canada we have been awarded a grant from MEOPAR (as part of a larger project) that will allow us to examine northern fulmar tissues and the plastics they ingested for plastic associated contaminants. The idea is to examine if fulmars that have higher levels of ingested plastics also have increased levels of some plastics associated contaminants.


This project is ongoing, and we are excited to now have the resources and support from MEOPAR to continue to project. The northern fulmars were collected in Lancaster Sound in 2013 and the Labrador Sea in the summer of 2015 as part of two Environment and Climate Change Canada research programs. All the birds have been dissected at the Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit as part of the wildlife contaminants workshop. I currently have an honours student working in our lab who is categorizing and quantifying the plastics from the fulmar stomachs. And now with the MEOPAR funding, we will be able to take this work a step further and analyse both the plastics and the fulmar tissues for plastic associated contaminants.

The team is busy currently working to bring on a MSc student to work more on the analytical side, while I hope to join the program as a Post-Doc in the fall (funding dependant), and I will be sure to post more as the project progresses.

Comments are closed.