School Email Exchange

What kinds of organisms are likely to suffer from ingesting the plastics you are measuring?

Posted on October 27 2012

Question submitted by Washingtonville High School

You may have heard that sea turtles often mistake floating plastic for the jellyfish and algae they eat, and when they consume it they may die as the plastic blocks their digestive track.  Similarly, dead seabird carcasses have been found to have large amounts of ingested plastic in their guts (for information on albatrosses, visit  When researchers dissect the stomachs of fish they often find plastic inside.  This was observed on the Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition in 2010.  

Scientists are still working to discover if the plastic found in fish guts causes the fish or any other organism going up the food chain, including us, harm.  It is possible that plastic pieces can cause internal damage, that they can give a false sense of being "full", and that they could be a source of toxins to the animal tissue.  It is very difficult to determine the consequences of ingesting plastic, but it is probably doing some kind of harm.

Barnacles from plastic rafting communities we’ve brought aboard have been preserved and will be sent to SEA in Woods Hole where scientist Dr. Deb Goodwin will examine them for the ingestion of plastics.  There is a possibility that any organism that ingests plastic is harmed by it; we just don’t know that at this time.  

At this time we don’t know if the plastic buoy these gooseneck barnacles, along with crabs and other marine life, used as a floating island caused them any harm.

Research done on bacteria found on plastic floating in the Atlantic after the 2010 cruise suggests that they may be physically breaking down or even potentially ingesting the plastic they inhabit.  Much of the research that will be done on the specimens we collect after our cruise in shore labs will be toward finding out the answer to that question.