While we have had countless reports of sea turtles consuming plastic bags, we never had a particular reason why. Until scientists found out that the smell of plastic bags reminded them of food with the algae and bacteria accumulated on the bags.
Current Biology published this study recently, after scientists had presented caged sea turtles with a variety of smells. Matthew Savoca, one of the study’s main authors, and a postdoctoral student at Hopkins Marine Station, spoke about how turtles couldn’t differentiate between their food and plastic bags owing to the same smell emanating out of them.
Interestingly, the turtles had pulled up their noses above water at least thrice times more to inhale the smell of plastic. Nick Mallos of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Program spoke about how this study simply exemplified the previously held data of turtles eating plastic. Until now, we only had speculations about how sea turtles could have simply gotten tangled in plastic or had mistaken plastic bags to be jellyfishes.
While Mallos wasn’t directly involved in the study, his fears are justified. He spoke out what we all are feeling- the fact that sea turtles are actually seeking plastic for consumption.
The problem though is much deeper than your average sea turtle making a mistake in finding food. The problem stems from the fact that there are mechanisms at play- evolutionary at that- which would help these animals find their food. This postulates that turtles have, over millions of years, learned how to pursue smells that hinted at food. Precisely why they move towards the smell of bacteria and algae- for they don’t know any better.
Due to the lack of food present in the oceans, creatures like sea turtles would have to eat anything that comes their way to survive. Not just turtles- even sea birds and several species of fish have a proclivity to the smell of plastic, which makes the problem even more troublesome. But sea turtles have it worse- all the 7 species are highly endangered.
Mallos mentions how sea turtles have always been threatened by the 8 million tons of plastic that flow into the ocean every year. When they consume plastic, their stomach gets filled up giving them a sensation of being full. And soon, they starve to death. In several other cases, most pieces of plastic that are considerably harder to swallow puncture their throats or choke them to death.
The only way to stop sea turtles from certain death- reducing the usage of plastic and its consumption.
Image credit: JOSEPH PFALLER