Sea turtles are some of the chillest little dudes in the ocean. Some, like the loggerhead sea turtle, look like aquatic stoners when they munch on jellyfish whose stings can leave their eyes swollen and red. Unfortunately for these fellas, plastic bags can look a lot like a jellyfish meal. No wonder a study published Tuesday in Global Change Biology found microplastics in the bellies of every species of sea turtle on Earth.
A team of ecologists from the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory ran tests on a subsample of what was inside the gastrointestinal tracts of 102 turtles from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and Mediterranean sea. Much of what the team found included synthetic fibers, which often come from clothes, cigarette filters, and fishing nets. These probably wound up in the animals after they swallowed polluted seawater or sediments.
Among all the turtles, the researchers counted 800 synthetic particles. Given that this analysis only tested a subsample of each animal’s gut, they estimate the true number could be 20 times higher. The question remains, however: How do all these plastics impact sea turtles’ health?
Viruses or bacteria may be passed through plastics, or they may even impact the animals on a cellular level, the authors speculate. Ultimately, no one really knows yet. Hell, we don’t even really understand what microplastics do to people. But it’s probably not good news. The animals already face threats from habitat destruction and accidental killing when anglers catch them in their nets.
“It is a clear sign that we need to act to better govern global waste,” said Brendan Godley, a professor of conservation at the University of Exeter and lead author of the study, in a press release.
The team examined dead animals that anglers accidentally caught or that were stranded on the beach in North Carolina, Northern Cyprus, and Queensland, Australia. The turtles gathered in Northern Cyprus saw the highest quantities of synthetic particles in their bodies.
The study didn’t look at enough turtles to say definitively that microplastics are plaguing all turtles in all oceans everywhere, but it’s another indicator that plastic pollution is widespread across the oceans. In 2015, a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral and became the rallying cry of environmentalists who want to fix this global problem. Maybe a turtle with a stomach full of tiny plastic particles will be next.