Marine Litter as Habitat and Dispersal Vector

Abstract Floating anthropogenic litter provides habitat for a diverse community of marine organisms. A total of 387 taxa, including proand eukaryotic microorganisms, seaweeds and invertebrates, have been found rafting on floating litter in all major oceanic regions. Among the invertebrates, species of bryozoans, crustaceans, molluscs and cnidarians are most frequently reported as rafters on marine litter. Micro-organisms are also ubiquitous on marine litter although the composition of the microbial community seems to depend on specific substratum characteristics such as the polymer type of floating plastic items. Sessile suspension feeders are particularly well-adapted to the limited autochthonous food resources on artificial floating substrata and an extended planktonic larval development seems to facilitate colonization of floating litter at sea. Properties of floating litter, such as size and surface rugosity, are crucial for colonization by marine organisms and the subsequent succession of the rafting community. The rafters themselves affect substratum characteristics such as floating stability, buoyancy, and degradation. Under the influence of currents and winds marine litter can transport associated organisms over extensive distances. Because of the great persistence (especially of plastics) and the vast quantities of litter in the world's oceans, rafting dispersal has become more prevalent in the marine environment, potentially facilitating the spread of invasive species.

Keywords Anthropogenic flotsam Rafting community Succession Biogeography Biological invasions Plastic pollution


Litter in the marine environment poses a hazard for a great variety of animals. Various species of marine vertebrates including fish, seabirds, turtles and marine mammals become easily entangled in floating marine litter, resulting in reduced mobility, strangulation and drowning (Derraik 2002; Kühn et al. 2015). Additionally, ingested litter can damage or block intestines, thereby affecting nutrition with often lethal effects (reviewed by Derraik 2002; Kühn et al. 2015). On the seafloor, marine litter can smother the substratum and thus cause hypoxia in benthic organisms (Moore 2008; Gregory 2009). In addition to these immediate hazardous effects on marine biota, marine litter has been suggested to facilitate the spread of non-indigenous species (Lewis et al. 2005). Biological invasions are considered a major threat to coastal ecosystems (Molnar et al. 2008).

Like any other submerged substrata, marine litter provides a habitat for organisms that are able to settle and persist on artifi surfaces. Once colonized by marine biota, litter items fl at the sea surface can facilitate dispersal of the associated rafters at different spatial scales. Previous studies have reported over 1200 taxa that are associated with natural and anthropogenic fl (Thiel and Gutow 2005a) and the extreme localities that rafting organisms can reach when transported over large distances by currents and wind (Barnes and Fraser 2003; Barnes and Milner 2005). While fl macroalgae, wood and volcanic pumice have been part of the natural fl assemblage of the oceans for millions of years, marine litter adds a new dimension to the dispersal opportunities of potential rafters (Barnes 2002). Marine litter is diverse (e.g. domestic waste, derelict fi gear, detached buoys), persistent (afl for longer than many natural substrata-Thiel and Gutow 2005b; Bravo et al. 2011), widespread (Barnes et al. 2009; Eriksen et al. 2014) and abounds in oceanic regions where natural fl substrata, such as macroalgae, occur less frequently (Rothäusler et al. 2012).

Unlike biotic substrata, anthropogenic litter is of no nutritional value to most organisms. Additionally, marine litter items differ from natural substrata in their physical and chemical characteristics such as surface rugosity and floating behavior. Accordingly, rafters need to overcome specific challenges with regard to food acquisition and attachment in order to persist for extended time periods on artificial floating substrata. The specific properties of marine litter are likely to influence colonization and succession processes, and thus the composition of the associated rafting community (Bravo et al. 2011).

In this chapter, we compiled information from peer-reviewed scientific literature on the biota associated with marine floating litter and on characteristics of litter items that affect the composition of the rafting community. Information on the biological traits of species associated with floating marine litter was used to characterize the rafting assemblage's functionally and to identify specific conditions that rafters on floating marine litter have to cope with. Finally, the environmental implications of litter rafting will be discussed, including the dispersal and invasion potential of non-indigenous species.

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