Space & Innovation

Plastic-Eating Corals in Australia Reef Raise Concerns

Scientists found plastic deep inside the coral and worried the substance could hurt the creature's ability to digest normal food.

Corals in the Great Barrier Reef are eating small plastic debris in the ocean, Australian researchers said on Tuesday, raising fears about the impact the indigestible fragments have on their health and other marine life.

The scientists found that when they placed corals from the reef into plastic-contaminated water, the marine life "ate plastic at rates only slightly lower than their normal rate of feeding on marine plankton", the study published in the journal Marine Biology said.

"If microplastic pollution increases on the Great Barrier Reef, corals could be negatively affected as their tiny stomach cavities become full of indigestible plastic," Mia Hoogenboom of Queensland state's James Cook University said.

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Microplastic is defined as particles smaller than half a centimeter (a fifth of an inch).

The scientists found the plastic "deep inside the coral polyp wrapped in digestive tissue" and expressed concerns the substance could then hurt the creature's ability to digest normal food.

They also sampled waters near inshore coral reefs in the World Heritage-listed site and found microplastics including polystyrene and polyethylene in small amounts, study co-author Kathryn Berry said.

The health of the reef, along the Queensland coast, is already under close scrutiny from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Climate change, poor water quality from land-based run-offs, coastal developments and fishing all threaten the biodiverse site.

Great Lakes Filled With Plastic Bits

As much as 88 percent of the open ocean's surface contains plastic debris, findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year found.

The small pieces -- from mass-produced plastics such as toys, bags, food containers and utensils -- make their way into the sea through storm water run-off, raising concerns about the effect on marine life and the food chain.

The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2012 that around 13,000 pieces of microplastic litter were found in every square kilometer of sea, with the North Pacific most badly affected.

Despite the prevalence of microplastics, scientists say it is not well-known what effects they have on the world's marine life.

Coral of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

The month of June honors both National Ocean Month and World Ocean Day (June 8). What better time, then, to check out photos of undersea life and be reminded that things "down there" are just as important as things up here on land. Here, a manatee goes about its day. The manatee, also known as a "seacow," is an air-breathing herbivore listed as a federally endangered species. Manatees are slow moving and can't swim quickly away from boats. This often results in collisions that can kill or injure them.

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Life's a beach. Mom and her baby elephant seal roll around in the sand in Ano Nuevo Island, Calif.

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A humpback whale breaches in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of California.

Distinct Humpback Whale Populations Found in North Pacific

A blue rockfish fans for the camera in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in California.

200-Year-Old Fish Caught Off Alaska

A Southern sea otter, aka,

Enhydra lutris nereis

, wonders what all the fuss is about, at South Harbor, Moss Landing, Calif. The World Ocean Day Photo Contest entrant was Submitted by Dr. Steve Lonhart.

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A white-lobed sponge brightens up the scenery. It's one of several images of rarely seen deep-sea animals that were captured on camera in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary during a NOAA expedition. Researchers used a NOAA remotely operated vehicle in waters 328 to 656 feet deep off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The research was funded by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Strange, Carnivorous Sponge Found In Deep Sea

This image brimming with colorful marine life is from the Pearl and Hermes Atoll. It's a huge oval coral reef within several internal reefs and is the second largest among the six atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

PHOTOS: Sharks, Marine Mammals Hang in Paradise

Having no backbone isn't always a bad thing! Just ask any octopus. These boneless invertebrates know how to squeeze into (and out of) many a tight spot. They have three hearts, nine brains and blue blood. (Two hearts send blood to the gills, while the third pumper sends it to the rest of the body.)

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Rapture Reef sits within the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. The monument encompasses more than 140,000 square miles of ocean and coral reef habitat.

PHOTOS: Life in Australia's Great Barrier Reef

A sea turtle swims off of the Hawaiian islands.

This seal is eager to wriggle its way back to freedom, as divers release it from fishing nets. Marine debris -- such as these nets -- makes a serious impact on its surroundings. From being an eyesore on a beach to injuring marine life or stopping a 400-ton vessel at sea, it causes problems that are difficult to ignore.

Seal Pup Found in Forest

Grey matter artwork? Nope! It's a sharknose goby (

Elacatinus evelynae

) propped up on brain coral in the U.S. Virgin Islands.