Last week, Grant Humphries told me about a fantastic new piece of research produced by the marine debris group from CSIRO's Ocean & Atmosphere flagship, based in Hobart, Tasmania. The researchers reported that they were able to detect a signature of plastic debris ingestion in several species of seabird by sampling the bird's preen gland oil and analyzing that sample on a GC-MS instrument. A GC-MS is able to detect and identify compounds at trace-level concentrations; the compounds that the researchers were interested in detecting were three common plasticizers, called phthalates.
This is awesome by itself, but the real breakthrough is that previously the only way to determine if a live seabird had ingested plastic was to lavage its stomach and sift through the regurgitated contents for plastic pieces. There are numerous problems with this approach; it would only show if the bird recently ingested plastic, data may be biased toward sick or weak individuals, and it's extremely invasive. This new GC-MS method could represent a paradigm shift in how wildlife managers and conservation biologists screen populations of marine animals - not only birds - for plastic ingestion.
Matthew Savoca holds a PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Davis. His research interests include sensory behavioral ecology, marine conservation biology, and seabird ecology.