Researchers working with the British Antarctic Survey have found microplastics in Antarctic penguins “for the first time” in a discovery described as “alarming” by experts.
The discovery was made by researchers from the Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre (MARE) at the University of Coimbra, one of the world’s oldest universities located in the city of Coimbra in the Centro region of Portugal, who worked with scientists from the British Antarctic Survey in the study.
The findings were published in the Scientific Reports journal, from the publishers of Nature. The researches took samples from the scats (faecal matter) of 80 gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) from the Antarctic region, specifically from Bird Island, in South Georgia and Signy Island, in the South Orkney Islands.
The study revealed that “a total of 20 percent of penguins scats from both islands contained microplastics, consisting mainly of fibres and fragments with different sizes and polymer composition”.
The study goes on to say: “To our knowledge, this is the first study to show that microplastics are present in the gastrointestinal tract of penguins feeding in Antarctic waters and therefore potentially widespread in the Antarctic marine food web.
“Microplastics have probably been ingested and taken up by gentoo penguins either through direct ingestion (e.g. due to misidentification of microplastics for food), indirect ingestion via contaminated prey, and/or incidental ingestion via contaminated water/sediments.”
The researches point to the fact that diet of the gentoo penguin often includes a high percentage of Antarctic krill, so the contamination of their faecal matter implies that other predators which eat Antarctic krill could also have suffered from micro-plastic contamination.
Filipa Bessa, the principal author of the study who is a researcher at the University of Coimbra, told reporters: “It is alarming that microplastics have now reached the Antarctic.”
She added the study is “the first to register microplastics in penguins in the marine food chain in the Antarctic. The variety of microplastics found in the penguins could indicate different sources of pollution, indicating a difficult solution for this problem.”
Fellow author of the study Jose Xavier, also from the University of Coimbra, added: “This discovery is very important in developing new means to reduce pollution in the Antarctic, particularly related to plastics, allowing it to serve as an example for other regions in the world.”
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