Ocean plastic emits chemical that may trick seabirds into eating trash

blue petrel

Some seabirds, including blue petrels (Halobaena caerulea), use the smell of dimethyl sulfide to find food. Plastic debris in the ocean gives off the same smell, sometimes tricking the birds into eating garbage.

J.J. Harrison

Plastic smells like supper for some seabirds. When the ubiquitous material ends up in the ocean, it gives off a chemical that petrels, prions and shearwaters often use to locate food, researchers report November 9 in Science Advances. That might lead the birds to ingest harmful junk instead of a real meal.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis let small beads of three common plastics linger off the coast of California. After a few weeks, the once-clean plastic accumulated grit, grime and bacteria that gave off an odiferous gas called dimethyl sulfide (SN: 2/20/16, p. 20). Phytoplankton give off the same gas, and certain seabirds use the odor as a cue that dinner is nearby. Birds that rely more heavily on dimethyl sulfide as a beacon for a nearby meal are more likely to ingest plastic than birds that don’t, the team found. Other marine animals that use the cue could also be fooled.

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