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Trophic Transfer

Absorption and ingestion of microplastics by organisms from the primary trophic level, e.g. phytoplankton and zooplankton, could be a pathway into the food chain (Bhattacharya et al. 2010). Many species of zooplankton undergo a diurnal migration. Migrating zooplankton could be considered a vector of microplastic contamination to greater depths of the water column and its inhabitants, either through predation or the production of faecal pellets sinking to the seafloor (Wright et al. 2013a). Only a few studies deal with the potential for microplastics to be transferred between trophic levels following ingestion. Field observation highlighted the presence of microplastics in the scat of fur seals (Arctocephalus spp.) and Eriksson and Burton (2003) suggested that microplastics had initially been ingested by the fur seals' prey, the plankton feeding Mycophiids. In feeding experiments, Farrell and Nelson (2013) identified microplastic in the gut and haemolymph of the shore crab (Carcinus maenas), which had previously been ingested by blue mussels (Mytilus edulis). There was large variability in the number of microspheres in tissues samples, and the results have to be treated with caution as the number of individuals was low and the exposure levels used exceeded those from the field. Similarly, Nephrops-fed fish, which had been seeded with microplastic strands of polypropylene rope were found to ingest but not to excrete the strands (Murray and Cowie 2011), again implying potential trophic transfer. As mentioned above, microplastics were also detected in cod, whiting, haddock, bivalves and brown shrimp, which are consumed by humans and raises concerns about trophic transfer to humans and human exposure (see Galloway 2015). Further studies are required to increase our understanding of trophic transfer.

Microplastic Effect on Habitats

Surfaces of buoyant microplastics provide habitats for rafting organisms. For example, pelagic insects (Halobates micans and H. sericeus) utilize microplastic pellets for oviposition (Goldstein et al. 2012; Majer et al. 2012). Indeed, Goldstein et al. (2012) attributed an overall increase in H. sericeus and egg densities in the NPCG to high concentrations of microplastics. Likewise, plastics serve as a floating habitat for bacterial colonisation (Lobelle and Cunliffe 2011). Microorganisms including Bacillus bacteria (mean: 1664 ± 247 individuals mm−2) and pennate diatoms (mean: 1097 ± 154 individuals mm−2) were identified on plastic items from the North Pacific gyre (Carson et al. 2013). These studies suggest that microplastics affect the distribution and dispersal of marine organisms and may represent vectors to alien invasion. Plastics colonised by pathogenic viruses or bacteria may spread the potential for disease, but there is currently no evidence to support this hypothesis.

Microplastic buried in sediments could have fundamental impacts on marine biota as they increase the permeability of sediment and decrease thermal diffusivity (Carson et al. 2011). This may affect temperature-dependent processes. For example, altered temperatures during incubation can bias the sex ratios of sea turtle eggs. At 30 °C, equal numbers of males and female embryos develop, whereas at temperatures <28 °C all embryos become male (Yntema and Mrosovsky 1982). With microplastics in sediments it will take longer to reach maximum temperatures because of its increased permeability. Therefore, eggs may require a longer incubation period, with more male hatchlings because of the insulating effect. Microplastic concentrations as low as 1.5 can decrease maximum temperatures by 0.75 °C (Carson et al. 2011), which has important implications for sexual bias in sea turtles including loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) (Yntema and Mrosovsky 1982; Mrosovsky et al. 1992). Changes in the sediment temperatures could also affect infaunal organisms as it may affect enzymatic and other physiological processes, feeding and growth rates, locomotory speeds, reproduction and ultimately population dynamics. However, this remains speculative until further researched.

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