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New study reveals impact of plastic on small mammals, as four out of seven species identified as ‘plastic positive’

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Researchers in England and Wales investigating the exposure of small mammals to plastic have found traces in the feces in more than half of the species studied.

In a paper published in Science of the total environmentResearchers from the University of Sussex, the Mammal Society and the University of Exeter state that the density of excreted plastic was comparable to that reported in human studies.

Fiona Mathews, professor of environmental biology at the University of Sussex, says that “a lot is known about the impact of plastics on aquatic ecosystems, but very little is also known about terrestrial systems.”

“By analyzing the feces of some of our most common small mammals, we’ve been able to get a glimpse of the potential impact plastic has on our wildlife — and the most common plastics leaking into our environment.”

The paper, authored by graduate Emily Thrift, Prof Fiona Mathews and Dr. Frazer Coomber of the University of Sussex and the Mammal Society, with Dr. Adam Porter and Prof Tamara Galloway of the University of Exeter, identify plastic polymers in four of the seven species for which they had fecal samples. The European hedgehog, field mouse, vole and brown rat were all found to be plastic positive.

Although they expected to see higher plastic concentrations in samples from urban sites and less plastic in herbivores, researchers found that plastic ingestion occurred both in sites and in different dietary habits — from herbivores, insectivores and omnivores.

Emily Thrift, an MSci graduate from the University of Sussex, says that “it is deeply disturbing that traces of plastic were so widespread across sites and species with different feeding habits. This suggests that plastic could be seeping into all parts of our environment in different ways.” We are also concerned that the European hedgehog and vole are both species that are declining in numbers in the UK.”

Using equipment at the Greenpeace labs at the University of Exeter, the team analyzed 261 fecal samples, 16.5% of which contained plastic. The most common types identified were polyester, polyethylene (commonly used in single-use packaging) and polynorbornene (mainly used in the rubber industry). Polyester accounted for 27% of the identified fragments and was found in all plastic positive species except the wood mouse. Widely used in the textile and fashion industry, the article explains that microfibers can enter the wastewater system through household washing and then end up on land through the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer.

More than a quarter of the plastics found in the study were also “biodegradable” or bioplastics. The authors caution that while these types of plastic may degrade faster than polymers, they can still be taken up by small mammals and further research is needed to investigate their true biological effects.

The authors believe that the microplastics found in the study likely entered the guts of species as a result of consumption of contaminated prey or direct ingestion. When ingested, researchers think that species may mistake plastics for food or chew macroplastics used as nesting material or to escape entanglement.

The potential impact of plastics through the food chain is another issue the authors are concerned about and urge for further research.

Prof. dr. Fiona Mathews adds that “we really need to get a deeper understanding of the implications of plastic ingestion on terrestrial mammals — and the potential effects it has on their conservation status. In our study, European hedgehog droppings contain the highest amount of plastic as a species.” they are already in decline in the UK for largely unknown reasons, and they are classified as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN compliant regional red list.European hedgehogs consume earthworms and previous studies have shown that these We really need further research to determine the to more accurately determine magnitude and route of exposure, and to assess prevalence in predatory species that consume small mammals, so that we can take adequate steps to try to protect our declining wildlife from plastic.”

Andy Bool, CEO of the Mammal Society, says that “The Mammal Society is proud to have helped and co-funded this research as it represents an important step in the study of the impact of plastic on terrestrial mammals. With a number of small mammal species. The fact that numbers are falling alarmingly underscores one of the challenges they face. We can all make a difference to help protect them from this threat by reducing the amount of single-use plastic we use and what we do use on reuse and recycle appropriately.”

dr. Adam Porter, NERC postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter, says that “plastic pollution in the UK can often appear to be a problem elsewhere when most are depicting polluted shorelines of tropical landscapes, or charismatic organisms such as turtles or sea lions. This study brings the focus home, to our country and to some of our much loved mammal species. Furthermore, it shows that the amount of plastic waste we produce has an impact. We need to change our relationship with plastic all together, moving away from disposables and into the towards replacing plastic with better alternatives and creating truly circular economies.”


Animal plastic intake reaches alarming new numbers


More information:
Emily Thrift et al, Ingestion of plastic by terrestrial small mammals, Science of the total environment (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.156679

Provided by the University of Sussex


Quote: New study reveals impact of plastic on small mammals as four of seven species identified as ‘plastic positive’ (2022, July 1) retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2022 on July 2, 2022 -07-reveals- impact-plastic-small-mammals.html

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