As the world’s most plastic-contaminated bird silently suffers from a novel disease, recently coined by scientists as ‘plasticosis,’ researchers have sounded the alarm about the detrimental effects of ingested plastic in wild animals, sparking concerns for the health of multiple species.
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Seabirds are falling prey to this new disease that could be spreading to other wildlife. What makes it unique is its root cause – plastic pollution, a direct result of human activity.
The international scientific community has called it ‘plasticosis,’ as it is caused by the consumption of plastic particles in the environment. This phenomenon has been observed in the Flesh-footed Shearwater, a bird that is commonly found in the Australian region.
A new study, led by Natural History Museum scientists, who investigated stomach tissue in such detail. The results indicate that plasticosis is a widespread issue that could be affecting many other species.
“While these birds can look healthy on the outside, they’re not doing well on the inside,” said Dr Alex Bond, who co-authored the study and is Principal Curator and Curator in Charge of Birds at the Natural History Museum.
“This study is the first time that stomach tissue has been investigated in this way and shows that plastic consumption can cause serious damage to these birds’ digestive system.”
Although previous studies have warned about the dangers of ingesting plastics, this new report focuses on the Flesh-footed Shearwater of Australia, revealing the devastating impact of plastic on the proventriculus organ – the first part of a bird’s stomach.
The study found that tiny pieces of plastic inflame the digestive tract, leading to scarring and deformation of the organ. The severity of the damage is directly proportional to the amount of plastic ingested, resulting in a fibrotic disease that can impair growth, digestion and survival.
Seabirds are an essential component of marine ecosystems, but they are under threat from a range of anthropogenic activities, including plastic pollution.
Over the last few decades, seabird populations have declined at an alarming rate. Plastic pollution has been identified as one of the main drivers of this decline.
Plastic debris litters oceans and shorelines across the world, and its presence in the stomachs of seabirds is now widespread. Ingesting plastic particles can cause digestive problems and, in severe cases, can lead to starvation, as the plastic can block the digestive system and prevent the absorption of nutrients.
The impact of plastic pollution on seabirds is now well established, with more and more studies revealing the extent of the problem.
The Flesh-footed Shearwater is one of the many seabird species that are affected by plastic pollution. It is a pelagic species that spends most of its life at sea, feeding on fish, squid and other marine organisms.
However, the bird’s diet is now contaminated with plastic, as it mistakes the particles for food. This contamination can lead to the development of plasticosis, a disease that is caused by the ingestion of plastic. Plasticosis is a fibrotic disease that affects the proventriculus organ, the first part of a bird’s stomach.
The study found that plasticosis is caused by small pieces of plastic that inflame the digestive tract. Over time, the persistent inflammation causes tissues to become scarred and deformed, with the knock-on effects including digestion, growth and survival issues.
It is thought that chicks are being accidentally, but directly, fed the plastic pollution by parents bringing back food for them. The disease can lead to the gradual breakdown of tubular glands in the proventriculus. Losing these glands can cause the birds to become more vulnerable to infection and parasites and affect their ability to digest food and absorb some vitamins.
While plasticosis is only known in one bird species currently, the scale of plastic pollution means that it may be much more widespread.
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