What the nose knows: smell helps explain why marine animals eat plastic

Hope everyone had a nice and filling
breakfast like I did this morning and that you’re feeling satisfied. But today I
wanna describe to you an alternate scenario. One where you had breakfast but
you’re still hungry, so you go back and you have another breakfast. But you’re still
hungry, and you do this again and again. And you’re not only hungry now but you’re starving.
This is a situation that’s happening in oceans around the world as animals from
sea birds to sea turtles, marine fish, even whales, are washing up beaches with
stomach full of plastic trash instead of their food. And despite the pervasiveness
and severity of this problem believe it or not scientists still do not have a firm understanding for why this happens to begin with. But I believe my
research has found an answer, and the answer lies in the nose. Over the open
ocean birds like this albatross don’t have very many visual cues to help them
locate food. But what they do have are different scent or odor cues. Decades of
behavioral and physiological research has shown this, that one type of odor that
these animals are very responsive to you are stinky sulfar based compounds. To us
these compounds smell like rotten eggs but to these animals they smell
delicious. It smells like their next meal, which is why when I found this initial
results I was so shocked. Those species of birds that use sulfur compounds to find
food are nearly six times more likely to eat plastic than those species of birds
that do not use sulfur compounds to find food. And this is a very robust result.
Over 50 years of data and 20,000 data points went into it. So I knew I had to
investigated further. And that’s exactly what I did. Over the last
couple summers I actually put plastic trash in the ocean at several marine
sites off the state of California. But don’t worry I retreive that trash after
about a month and brought it to the Mondavi Institute of Food and Wine
Science at UC Davis. Where we did state of the art chemical analysis to see what
that plastic actually smells like. And lo and behold every sample plastic we
tested stunk of these sulfur compounds that animals used to find food. So
finally what I wanted to do was test this idea on an animal that we know eats
plastic in the wild. And I got to do that last summer in collaboration with the
Aquarium of the Bay right here in San Francisco. The animal we chose to use
were northern anchovy, an economically and ecologically critical species
found off the coast of California and the results were
remarkable. As you can see from the top two parts of this figure, those fish that
were exposed to odors of plastic debris and their food responded very similar ways —
bawling and aggregating around that odor, investigating it. This is indicative of food
search behavior and we did not see it in any of the controlled trials. And it goes
to show that chemical cues associated with plastic likely play a role in why these animals
eat it to begin with. And what better day, to stand up here before you and tell you about
this issue then today, Earth Day, and remind you that we all have
a responsibility this planet to keep it sustainable. And I believe our generation of
scientists will help solve this issue once and for all. But to solve this issue we must first
understand why it happens to begin with, and that’s why my research is done.
Thank you.

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