Interactions of Microplastics with Marine Organisms

Recently, Wright et al. (2013a) discussed the biological factors, which could enhance microplastic bioavailability to marine organisms: the varying density of microplastics allows them to occupy different areas of the water column and benthic sediments. As microplastics interact with plankton and sediment particles, both suspension and deposit feeders may be at risk of accidentally or selectively ingesting marine debris. However, the relative impacts are likely to vary across the size spectrum of microplastic in relation to the organisms affected, which is dependent on the size of the microplastic particles encountered. Microplastics in the upper end of the size spectrum (1–5 mm) may compromise feeding and digestion. For example, Codina-García et al. (2013) isolated such pellets and fragments from the stomachs of seabirds. Particles <20 µm are actively ingested by small invertebrates (e.g. Thompson et al. 2004) but they are also egested (e.g. Lee et al. 2013). Studies have shown that nanoparticles can translocate (e.g. Wegner et al. 2012) and model simulations have indicated that nano-sized polystyrene (PS) particles may permeate into the lipid membranes of organisms, altering the membrane structure, membrane protein activity, and therefore cellular function (Rossi et al. 2013). The following section deals with incidences of ingestion, trophic transfer and provision of new habitat by the presence of microplastics in the marine environment. Although the sections contain examples, comprehensive lists of microplastics ingestion are included in the corresponding tables.


Ingestion is the most likely interaction between marine organisms and microplastics. Microplastics' small size gives them the potential to be ingested by a wide range of biota in benthic and pelagic ecosystems. In some cases, organisms feeding mechanisms do not allow for discrimination between prey and anthropogenic items (Moore et al. 2001). Secondly, organisms might feed directly on microplastics, mistaking them for prey or selectively feed on microplastics in place of food (Moore 2008). If there is a predominance of microplastic particles associated with planktonic prey items, organisms could be unable to differentiate or prevent ingestion. A number of studies have reported microplastics from the stomachs and intestines of marine organisms, including fish and invertebrates. Watts et al. (2014) showed that shore crabs (Carcinus maenas) will not only ingest microplastics along with food (evidence in the foregut) but also draw plastics into the gill cavity because of their ventilation mechanism: this highlights that it is important to consider all sorts of routes of exposure to microplastics. If organisms ingest microplastics they could have adverse effects on individuals by disrupting feeding and digestion (GESAMP 2010). Laboratory (Table 10.8) and field (Table 10.9) studies highlighted that microplastics are mistaken for food by a wide variety of animals including birds, fish, turtles, mammals and invertebrates. Despite concerns raised regarding microplastic ingestion, few studies specifically examined the occurrence of microplastic in natural, in situ, populations as it is methodologically challenging to assess microplastic ingestion in the field (Browne et al. 2008).

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