Green turtles swallow plastic that looks like sea grass

Aug. 9 (UPI) — Green turtles are more likely to eat pieces of plastic that resemble their preferred food, sea grass.

When researchers examined the guts of green turtles found washed up on the beaches of Cyprus, an island nation in the Eastern Mediterranean, the pieces of plastic they found were long and thin.

Scientists dissected 34 turtles, but were only able to examine the full gastrointestinal tracts of 19 specimens. Researchers found plastic pollution in the guts of all 19. One turtle’s intestinal tract revealed 183 pieces of plastic debris.

The turtles mostly died after getting caught in fishing nets. Scientists were unable to determine whether or not plastic consumption played a role in the deaths. Green turtles are classified as endangered.

In addition to getting caught in fishing nests, adults are hunted. Their eggs are also targeted by poachers. Human activities also threaten the species’ preferred nesting sites.

“Previous research has suggested leatherback turtles eat plastic that resembles their jellyfish prey, and we wanted to know whether a similar thing might be happening with green turtles,” Emily Duncan, researcher at the University of Exeter, said in a news release. “Sea turtles are primarily visual predators — able to choose foods by size and shape — and in this study we found strong evidence that green turtles favor plastic of certain sizes, shapes and colors.”

The survey of turtle intestines suggests green turtles tend to target plastic that is grass-like and black, green or clear.

“The sources of this plastic might include things like black bin bags, and fragments from items such as fishing rope and carrier bags,” Duncan said.

Plastic is now everywhere in the world’s oceans. Studies suggest even deep sea creatures are ingesting plastic. Sea birds have also been found to eat plastic debris resembling their prey.

Results of the latest study, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, showed smaller turtles tend to ingest more plastic, perhaps because they’re inexperienced.

“Research like this helps us understand what sea turtles are eating, and whether certain kinds of plastic are being ingested more than others,” said Brendan Godley, professor of marine sciences at Exeter. “It’s important to know what kinds of plastic might be a particular problem, as well as highlighting issues that can help motivate people to continue to work on reducing overall plastic consumption and pollution.”

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