Turtles think ocean plastic smells like food, study finds

Results of the new research showed that turtles were attracted by the scent of turtle food and bio-fouled plastic equally.

    2020/03/13

NSFW    GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA — New evidence suggests that sea turtles are drawn to the smell of plastic debris found in the ocean, according to a report published in Current Biology.

The research team conducted experiments on 15 five-month-old captive loggerhead turtles.

They placed each of the turtles into an isolated container where they would be exposed to the odor of four different items in random order: turtle food, clean plastic debris, deionized water, and plastic that was purposely exposed to a marine environment for five weeks so it would become coated with marine microbes.

The turtles were given roughly one minute inside the container before being exposed to the odor of the items. The airborne particles were supplied into the container through a pipe and a fan outside of the isolated tank for two minutes. Researchers observed the turtles' behavior for four minutes after being exposed to the odors.

Results showed that turtles were attracted by the scent of turtle food and bio-fouled plastic equally. When exposed to these two items, turtles kept their nares above the water three times longer than they did when exposed to clean plastics and deionized water.

Co-author of the study Joseph Pfaller of the University of Florida, Gainesville told the BBC that it's not so much that the plastics look like turtle food but that quote, 'anything out there can grow bacteria and animals on it that turtles want to eat and so it smells to them like something they should go check out and possibly consume, which can lead to their death.'"

According to 2015 data published in the journal Science, between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year.
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