Microplastics Ingested in the Deep-Sea

Published 2016-10-04

Photo: Michelle Taylor

A unique collaboration between scientific researchers at the University of Oxford, University of Bristol, National History Museum in London, and Staffordshire University’s Department of Forensic and Crime Science recently led to the discovery of microplastics in ingested material from deep-sea creatures. Microplastics are plastic particles under 5mm in length and are found in cosmetics, cleaning materials, and other common household products. They can be in the form of small beads or microfibers composed of polyester, nylon and acrylic. The UK government recently announced a ban on microplastics by the end of the year 2017. These particles are approximately the same size as the particles found in “marine snow”, which is organic material that falls from the euphotic zones of the ocean down to the sea floor and then consumed by deep-sea organisms.

Aboard the RRS James Cook in the mid-Atlantic and south-west Indian Ocean, researchers collected samples of deep-sea sediments and found a high number of microplastics. Since many deep-sea invertebrates and crustaceans either live in or eat these sediments, the researchers then decided to look for evidence of ingestion of microplastics. The Department of Forensic and Crime Science at Staffordshire University then analyzed the ingested contents to ensure that the microplastics found in hermit crabs, squat lobsters, and sea cucumbers were not from contamination in the laboratory or processing procedures.

As a product of this work, the researchers have found unique evidence that microplastics were found to be ingested by deep-sea creatures, thousands of miles from the coast. In the future, forensic science may play a more important role in marine research.