Plastics reach remote pristine environments, impacting birds’ eggs of Arctic birds
Birds’ eggs in High Arctic contain chemical additives used in plastics.
Scientists have warned about the impact of plastic pollution in the most pristine corners of the world after discovering chemical additives in birds’ eggs in the High Arctic.
Eggs laid by northern fulmars on Prince Leopold Island in the Canadian Arctic tested positive for hormone-disrupting phthalates, a family of chemicals that are added to plastics to keep them flexible. It is the first time the additives have been found in Arctic birds’ eggs. The contaminants are thought to have leached from plastic debris that the birds ingested while hunting for fish, squid and shrimp in the Lancaster Sound at the entrance to the Northwest Passage. The birds spend most of their lives feeding at sea, returning to their nests only to breed.
Northern fulmars have an oily fluid in their stomachs, which they projectile-vomit at invaders that threaten their nests. Scientists believe the phthalates found their way into the fluid, and from there passed into the bloodstream and the eggs that females were producing. Jennifer Provencher at the Canadian Wildlife Service said it was worrying to find the additives in birds’ eggs in such a pristine environment. The northern fulmars in the Arctic tend to come across far less plastic than other birds.
Provencher’s tests revealed that mothers passed on a cocktail of contaminants to their unborn chicks. “It’s really tragic,” she said at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. “That bird, from the very beginning of its development, will have those contaminants inside it.”
She analysed the yolk and albumin of five northern fulmar eggs collected on Prince Leopold Island and found that one tested positive for phthalates. The chemicals disrupt hormones, or the endocrine system, and have been linked to birth defects, fertility problems and a host of metabolic diseases. Many phthalates have been banned in children’s toys on safety grounds.
More work is needed to confirm whether the additives cause any harm. “We know that these chemicals are often endocrine disruptors, and we know that they can interrupt hormonal development and cause deformations. But whether they actually cause any harm in the eggs is something we don’t know,” Provencher said.
Scientists to look for contaminants in other bird populations
Further tests found traces of other plastic contaminants in northern fulmar and black-legged kittiwake eggs collected from the same nesting sites. Eggs from both birds tested positive for SDPAs and BZT-UVs, which are added to plastics to stop them degrading and losing their colour in sunlight, respectively.
The scientists now want to look for plastic contaminants in the eggs of other bird populations that ingest more plastic debris. “We need to look at whether they have the same chemicals, higher levels of chemicals, and additional chemicals,” said Provencher. “The recognition that at least some of these contaminants are going into eggs really opens the door for all these other questions we should be asking in areas of much higher plastic concentrations.”
Northern fulmars are large, albatross-like birds that soar low over the waves in search of food. More than half a million breeding pairs nest on the cliffs of Britain, with most on the Scottish coastline and Northern Isles.
Because northern fulmars can live for 40 years or more, the birds have been exposed to significant plastic debris in the seas for only a few generations. That meant the birds had not had time to adapt to the changing environment, Provencher said.
Alex Bond, a conservation biologist who studies seabirds and marine debris at the Natural History Museum in London, said: “It’s another example of the often invisible impacts that plastics can have on wildlife. It may not be enough to result in mortality, but it’s certainly not a positive thing, and combined with the pressures from other contaminants – from plastics and from the birds’ prey – contributes to the increased threats that many of the world’s seabirds are facing.”
Lyndsey Dodds, the head of UK marine policy at WWF, said: “Our throwaway culture is strangling the natural world with plastic, choking our oceans and harming our wildlife; 90% of the world’s sea birds have fragments of plastic in their stomach, and now we are hearing even their eggs are not immune from the plastic plague. We need to take urgent action globally and at home to eliminate plastics from nature by 2030.”
Featured Image: Northern fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis, nesting in Scotland. Fulmars spend most of their lives feeding at sea. Photograph: Philippe Clément/PA Images
Ian Sample, Science Editor, The Guardian
February 17, 2019