The great shearwater is a seabird commonly seen off the New England coast. It’s not particularly striking — to the untrained eye, it looks like a brown seagull with long wings. It eats by diving underwater, grabbing prey and then returning to the surface to swallow it down. The birds aren’t rare or endangered, but they can live for decades, and this makes them especially interesting to scientists who study long-term environmental pollutants.
“Because they’re long-lived and are eating at similar food web levels as where a human might eat, they’re great indicators of the environment, and they really tell us a lot about the health of this Atlantic system,” says Anna Robuck, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.
Humans dump an estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean each year, and some of it gets eaten by fish, marine mammals and seabirds like great shearwaters. Though scientists have done a bunch of studies looking a how much plastic animals eat, very few have examined what type of plastic they eat. And knowing where the plastic came from could help us keep it out of the ocean.
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