Support Provided ByLearn More

To Corals, Plastic Might Taste Like Food

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Sea turtles spot plastic bags and mistake them for jellyfish. Birds get entwined in plastic and choke to death. Corals, it turns out, could be even worse off—to them, some of the chemicals in plastic might taste like food .

These particles get stuck in corals and could disrupt their digestive process. Many different chemicals make their way into the manufacturing of plastic, so it’s unsurprising that at least a few of them might remind corals of a nasty treat.

Support Provided ByLearn More
More than 200 species have been found eating plastic in the ocean.

Here’s Veronique Greenwood, reporting for The New York Times:

In their experiment, the researchers offered corals collected from North Carolina’s coastal waters two different kinds of plastic to see what would be more popular: older plastic, weathered in seawater and covered with a thin layer of bacteria, or plastic fresh from the factory. The corals seemed to prefer the newer plastic, ingesting more of it than the older shards.

The difference between the consumption of new and old plastic could come down to the concentrations of additive chemicals. Perhaps the microbes on weathered plastic kept those added compounds from reaching the corals as swiftly. Or maybe the microbes produced substances that kept the corals from eating them as quickly.

If scientists can pinpoint the chemicals that are attracting corals, then perhaps producers of plastic can respond by decreasing the proportions of those chemicals—or creating a recipe that repels corals instead.

Photo credit: NOAA