Copepods, those tiny crustaceans that make up much of the building blocks of marine life, have been found to be ingesting tiny beads of plastic trash, also known as microplastics. These tiny animals usually eat algae, and are fed upon by larger organisms which in turn are eaten by larger organisms up the food chain, but Emily Shore, a student researcher at the University of Vermont has shown that the fecal material, otherwise known as poop, of Acartia tonsa copepods in her study, has shortened considerably, as these organisms, often just one millimeter in length, consume more micro plastics and less algae. 

“I have some data from a previous experiment where the adults were laying shorter fecal lengths, which showed that they were consuming less algae—and more microplastics,” Shore told UVM Today. “There was less biomatter to make the fecal lengths longer.”

Various copepod species. Andrei Savitsky/Wikipedia

Acartia tonsa is an important food source for Atlantic fish, and they do well in laboratory situations, so Shore and her professor,  Melissa Pespeni, can reproduce them in the lab and study how microplastics affects these crustaceans for the duration of their lives.

It is not surprising that these little critters are eating microplastics, because the world’s oceans are inundated with these man-made materials. Researchers with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego released a study last year that says microscopic plastics off the California coast has doubled every 15 years since the 1940s, and the increase in these marine plastics matches the rise in plastic production worldwide.

And a study of shellfish off the coast of the United Kingdom found that 100 percent of mussels taken from UK waters as well as supermarket-purchased mussels contained microplastics and other debris in their systems. 

Shore, who is pursuing an accelerated master’s degree in biology, is hoping that more attention is placed on the perils of marine plastics in the world’s oceans.

“There’s just not enough attention on plastic pollution in the ocean. It’s scary because you can’t see all these critters, except with a microscope,” Shore said, “but they’re out there, eating plastic. Which means we are too.”