Black plastic show spots for ocean birds revealed

O plastic pollution it is a growing problem in all seas on the planet, but its distribution is not homogeneous. Plastics tend to accumulate in certain areas, due to the effect of sea currents. At the same time, seabirds are heterogeneously distributed, visiting more frequently the areas where their prey is concentrated, also taking into account the influence of the winds.

A new study crossed information about the distribution of plastics and ocean birds, to see where there is the most overlap and therefore the greatest risk of interaction. The research, led by BirdLife International, was published in Nature Communications.

The Spanish subsidiary SEO/BirdLife participated in the work, which provided data on the Balearic Shearwater (P. mauretanicus), Mediterranean Cinderella (puffinus yelkouan) and Atlantic (northern lights). Institutions such as the Center for Advanced Studies in Blanes (CEAB-CSIC), the Biological Station of Doñana (EBD-CSIC) and the University of Barcelona, ​​among others, also collaborated.

Plastics release dimethyl sulfate when they decompose, the same substance that plankton emits and which these birds use to locate food.

Research has focused on petrels and shearwaters (procellarids), one of the most endangered groups of birds on the planet. These birds are distributed throughout the seas, both in coastal and ocean areas, and are therefore excellent indicators of the state of conservation of the marine environment. Studying the incidence of plastics in this group can help to better understand the impacts of this threat on the ecosystem as a whole.

According to the study, several species of shearwaters and petrels ingest this material regularly, either mistaking them for their prey, or ingesting them through them. The risk is increased by the fact that plastics release dimethyl sulphate when they decompose, the same substance that plankton emits and which these birds use to locate, at a considerable distance, areas of greater productivity (and therefore food).

In the case of larger plastics, their ingestion and accumulation can cause obstruction of the digestive systemeven causing suffocation or starvation, although it seems to be a problem that affects few specimens.

These birds regularly ingest plastics, mistaking them for their prey or eating them through them.

The problem of microplastics

On the other hand, the ingestion of small plastics (microplastics) is more widespread and recent studies suggest that it can have significant deleterious effects. These contaminants are increasingly abundant, as in addition to reaching the sea directly as waste from some products (such as cosmetics), their number also increases due to the decomposition and fractionation of larger plastics into smaller and smaller particles.

critically endangered species

Overall, data on the distribution of 7,137 specimens of petrels and shearwaters, from 77 different species worldwide. With the available data, the Mediterranean and Black Sea stand out as the highest risk areas identified by the study.

This implies that the species in this basin are the most exposed to the problem of plastics, notably the Mediterranean and Balearic Shearwaters, both globally threatened and classified as vulnerable and critically endangered, respectively.

“The results of the study show the relevance of the problem of plastics for the species of our direct competition, especially the endemic Balearic Shearwater”, he points out. Pep Arcos, Coordinator of the SEO/BirdLife Marine Program and one of the co-authors of the article.

In total, distribution data from 7,137 petrels and shearwaters, from 77 different species, were analyzed.

“So far we know that there is a high incidence of plastic in the three species of shearwaters typical of the Mediterranean, but given the results of this article, we have to intensify our efforts to understand its real impact”, he adds.

for your part, ruiz assumption, executive director of SEO/BirdLife and co-author of the article, states that “the study is further scientific evidence of the urgent need to change the production and consumption model. Our seas and oceans are highly polluted and plastic is one of the biggest risk factors for wildlife. Science provides knowledge and it is fundamental to continue betting on it; but we must ensure that it arrives at the decisions so that the necessary measures are applied to put an end to the models that put our authentic heritage, nature, at risk”.


Bethany Clark et al. “Global risk assessment of marine plastics exposure for ocean birds”. Nature Communications (2023)

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