Great Barrier Reef coral is being threatened by an abundance of plastic waste. A recent study, conducted by researchers at James Cook University, suggests corals will eat particles of plastic. Unfortunately, the marine invertebrates are incapable of digesting synthetic material.
Plastic waste often goes undetected, as the ocean breaks it down into tiny particles called microplastics. Although they are small, microplastics can have a major impact on the ecosystem.
As they are “non-selective feeders,” corals cannot distinguish the difference between microplastics and plankton. As the amount of plastic waste continues to rise, corals could consume dangerous quantities of the man-made substance.
As reported by EurekAlert, researchers collected Great Barrier Reef coral and placed them inside water polluted with microplastics. Although the corals consumed the synthetic material, the particles did not pass through their digestive system.
The researchers discovered that the microplastics became lodged in the corals’ digestive tissue. In higher quantities, the particles could block the corals’ digestive tract — making it impossible for them to consume actual food.
Kathryn Berry, who co-authored the study, said she and her colleagues also tested water samples collected near the Great Barrier Reef. Although microplastics were present in the samples, they were “only in small amounts.” Unfortunately, the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is only expected to rise.
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Dr. Mia Hoogenboom, who led the study, said plastic pollution is a serious concern.
“If microplastic pollution increases on the Great Barrier Reef, corals could be negatively affected as their tiny stomach-cavities become full of indigestible plastic… Marine plastic pollution is a global problem and microplastics can have negative effects on the health of marine organisms.”
One of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef is over 1,400 miles long. It is the world’s largest natural structure, and the only natural structure visible from outer space.
In addition to 400 species of coral, the Great Barrier Reef houses birds, dolphins, coral sponges, molluscs, rays, reptiles, and “over 1,500 species of tropical fish.”
The entire Great Barrier Reef is composed of more than 900 islands and more than 2,900 individual reefs. Although it has existed for an estimated 20 million years, the iconic landmark is threatened by numerous factors.
In addition to pollution, the reef is also affected by climate change.
Changes in ocean temperature cause stress to the invertebrates. As a result, the reef has experienced at least two severe “mass coral bleaching events.” The mass bleachings affected an estimated 50 percent of Great Barrier Reef coral.
Dr. Mia Hoogenboom said she is not only concerned about the Great Barrier Reef coral. She and her colleagues are also studying the impact of microplastics on the reef’s tropical fish.
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