Why Some Corals Crave Plastic

Why Some Corals Crave Plastic
iStock/Eloi_Omelia

A new study from Marine Pollution Bulletin discovered that corals, the animals that make coral reefs, are purposefully eating plastic. Apparently, some of the chemicals infused in plastic may taste like food to corals, reports the New York Times.

Corals have receptors to help them identify food. The study posits that some chemical additives in plastic may mimic substances that set off corals’ appetites, say Alexander Seymour and Austin Allen, graduate students at Duke University who led the study. The danger with this is that if corals are purposefully seeking out plastic particles, they may eat so much trash that the particles get stuck inside them. The plastic could then disrupt their digestive process.

The experiment

First, the researchers gathered coral from North Carolina’s coastal waters. They offered them “two different kinds of plastic to see what would be more popular,” reports the Times. The corals were given plastic dipped in seawater, covered with a thin layer of bacteria, or weathered plastic without added bacteria; “the corals seemed to prefer the bacteria-free plastic, ingesting more of it than the other shards,” adds the Times.

Scientists think that possibly, “the difference between the consumption of the two plastics could come down to the concentrations of additive chemicals,” reports the Times. However, if researchers are able to figure out the additive chemicals that corals prefer, they may be able to determine what additives to leave out of plastic in the future.

“If we could manufacture plastic to taste attractive, maybe we can manufacture plastic to taste repulsive,” says Seymour. “Maybe we can prevent critters from eating plastic in the first place.”

The world’s pollution problem

Plastic disposal is impacting the world in more ways than we know, says Caleb Ellis, environmental expert for Maple Holistics. “What’s important to note is that the measure of damage done to the environment by improper waste management is only a small fraction of what is actually being done, as we are limited in terms of our ability to scan and assess the ocean and all of its life forms.”

Ellis adds that plastic is damaging the coral reef, which damages the organisms that rely on it for healthy living. This damages those organisms relying on smaller organisms for sustenance. “Improper disposal of hazardous materials is effecting every level of the food chain—a chain that we exist on.”

Curbing plastic consumption

Although plastic is a major polluter, there are other things that hurt the environment, too, says Pablo Solomon, green designer. Humans also improperly dump an enormous amount of trash into rivers and oceans. And proper disposal of garbage paired with making better use of trash could help make the world’s rubbish problem less dire.

Ellis adds that he thinks that the answer is not to stop using plastic, but to optimize recycling. “Cutting down on plastic would undoubtedly help preserve coral and ocean life. But a green world which recycles in a widespread and efficient manner would accomplish the same while also allowing companies to retain their processes which rely on plastic—an undoubtedly useful substance.”

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Abbie Stutzer

Writer, editor, and owner of Ginchy!, a freelance writing and editing company, and home funeral hub. Adores smart sex ed, sustainable ag, spooky history, women's health, feminism, horror, wine, and sci-fi.