The Tiny Giants Who Eat Microplastics – Zooplankton

The Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK published a video that showed how zooplanktons were eating microplastics, mistaking them for their normal food.

Microbeads are a kind of plastic contained in toothpaste and facial wash, and the impact that microbeads have on small creatures is not yet clearly understood.

However, when watching this video the fact that zooplanktons consume microbeads because they mistake them for their food, which is phytoplankton, comes to light.

Several researchers have already conducted studies showing that filter feeding zooplankton can eat tiny microplastics. This zooplankton forms a very critical element that supports the bottom of the food chain(Cole et a. 2013, Setälä et al. .

Zooplankton usually excrete the plastic within hours, but some have been found to retain microplastics (in particular polystyrene) within their bodies for several days(Cole et a. 2013).

After eating the microplastic, zooplankton have been found to have a significantly decreased nutritional intake and enter a status of poor nutrition. As a result, their reproductive output becomes disrupted(Cole et al. 2015, Lee et al. 2013).

A diet of non-nutritional microplastic also affects how zooplanktons deal with food shortages(Cole et al. 2015).

When zooplankton are faced with starvation, they usually lower their metabolic rate to save energy. However, this does not occur when the diet contains microplastics. Zooplankton mistake microplastics for their food, thus, they do not lower their metabolic rate even when they haven’t received enough real food.

Research by a Canadian team found that zooplankton in the natural environment actually ingested plastics(Desforges et al. 2015. Although this has been expected for some time now, it still gave us quite a shock and it is bad news for the marine environment.

The Canadian research team caught and checked the stomach contents of two types of zooplankton that are common in the northwest Pacific Ocean, namely copepods and krill. They found a piece of microplastic in one in every 34 copepods and one piece of microplastic in one in every 17 krill(Desforges et al. 2015).

Copepods are tiny crustaceans with a size of 2-3 mm. Their biomass is believed to be the largest of all the creatures on the Earth and, therefore, they are rightly called “tiny giants.” One species of krill also boasts one of the biggest biomasses all by itself.

As “tiny giants,” these species of zooplankton are a very important group of creatures and serve to support the bottom of the food chain. If the amount of zooplankton decreases due to the negative impact of plastics, then the fish and whales that eat zooplankton will also be terribly affected.

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