Baby sea turtles are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of plastic pollution, according to a new study which found around half of the recently hatched reptiles had stomachs full of plastic. In recent years, scientists have realised that animals ranging from plankton to whales are regularly consuming plastic, since around 10 million tons of it ends up in the sea every year. While some plastic can pass harmlessly through animals’ digestive systems, it can also accumulate and kill them by either blocking or tearing their guts.
A new study published in the journal Nature has attempted to quantify the harm that plastic is having on the turtle population of eastern Australia. In their research, a team led by Dr Britta Denise Hardesty from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) examined data from nearly 1,000 dead turtles to understand the role plastic played in their deaths. They found that the youngest turtles appeared to be most susceptible to plastic pollution. Just over half of the post-hatchling individuals had ingested plastic, and around a quarter of the slightly older juveniles were affected, compared to around 15 per cent of adults. While the number of plastic pieces in the reptiles’ guts varied wildly from one to over 300, the scientists were able to deduce that turtles have a 50 per cent probability of death after consuming 14 pieces. The work emerges as another study documents the global decline of turtles and tortoises that has left over 60 per cent of the world’s species either extinct or facing extinction.