Albatross chicks are dining on a massive, floating garbage patch in the Pacific.
Laysan albatross chicks living on one of the world's most remote islands, Kure Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, ingest 10 times more plastic than chicks living on Oahu, according to a new study published in the journal PLoS One.
The study illustrates how human activity can impact even the most isolated animal species.
Adult Kure birds spend time foraging over the "Western Garbage Patch," an enormous zone of floating plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean. The albatrosses eat a lot of flying fish eggs, which are often attached to scraps of wood, plastic or other materials.
This foraging pattern appears to account for the difference in plastic consumption by chicks, suggests bird tracking data collected by the research team.
It is difficult to prove if and how plastic is killing albatrosses, but researchers speculate that birds may die from plastic puncturing the intestinal tract, from blockages, or from toxins in the plastic or other pollutants.
Lindsay Young of the University of Hawaii and colleagues attached location trackers to adult Laysan albatrosses on Oahu and on Kure Atoll, located 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu.
The researchers were curious to see how the foraging patterns differed at the two locations during the egg incubating and early chick-rearing season -- when the birds have to return regularly to the nest -- and afterward.
They also analyzed the pellets regurgitated by the chicks. "We noticed that there was a lot more plastic in the ones from Kure Atoll than from Oahu," Young said.
The monitors showed that the Kure Atoll birds spend a lot more time over the Western Garbage Patch, a zone off Japan where ocean currents have trapped large amounts of garbage, than the Oahu birds spent over the corresponding Eastern Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California.
Although the Kure Atoll chicks regurgitated 10 times more plastic than the Oahu birds, the pellets had about the same amount of real food.
"The fact that they cough them up usually means the chicks are going to be OK," Young noted. "It is the ones they can't cough up that are the problem."
"It is surprising that a colony that is so near to a city of a million people had so much less plastic consumption than a colony that is literally the most remote atoll in the world," Young said. "It's not only that they were able to find (the garbage), but that they were bringing it back to the atoll."
"Nothing is immune from what we (humans) do at this point," she added.
"What is shocking to me is the quantities that they're finding in these albatross chicks," said Holly Gray of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif. "Those are substantial burdens for these small animals to be carrying,"
"The solution is simple: We need to halt the flow of plastics into the marine environment," she added. "It is the implementation of this halt that is the complicated part."