Sea turtles may confuse the smell of ocean plastic with food

The reptiles respond to both scents by sniffing more, a key foraging behavior

Loggerhead sea turtles respond similarly to the smell of ocean plastic and food. As plastic waste continues to accumulate in the oceans, this behavior could prove dangerous for sea turtles.

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To a sea turtle, plastic debris might smell like dinner.

As the plastic detritus of modern human life washes into oceans, marine creatures of all kinds interact with and sometimes eat it (SN: 11/13/19). Recent research suggests that this is no accident. Plastic that’s been stewing in the ocean emits a chemical that, to some seabirds and fish, smells a lot like food (SN: 11/9/16). That chemical gas, dimethyl sulfide, is also produced by phytoplankton, a key food source for many marine animals.

Now, scientists have determined that loggerhead sea turtles may also confuse the smell of plastic with food, according to a study published March 9 in Current Biology

Over two weeks in January 2019, 15 captive loggerheads in tanks were exposed at the water surface to a slew of scents, including the largely neutral scent of water as a control, of food such as shrimp and of new and ocean-soaked plastic. 

The turtles (Caretta caretta) largely ignored smells of water and clean plastic. But when the scientists puffed air containing scents of either food or ocean-stewed plastic, the reptiles increased their sniffing above water — a typical foraging behavior. In fact, those responses to food and ocean-soaked plastic were indistinguishable to the researchers, suggesting that the plastic can induce foraging behavior in sea turtles, the team says. That might explain why sea turtles get entangled in or eat plastic, which can be harmful.

Along with previous research, this study expands the breadth of marine life that may confuse plastic with food.

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