Microplastics Alter the Properties and Sinking Rates of Zooplankton Faecal Pellets

Plastic debris is a widespread contaminant, prevalent in aquatic ecosystems across the globe. Zooplankton readily ingest microscopic plastic (microplastic, < 1 mm), which are later egested within their faecal pellets. These pellets are a source of food for marine organisms, and contribute to the oceanic vertical flux of particulate organic matter as part of the biological pump. The effects of microplastics on faecal pellet properties are currently unknown. Here we test the hypotheses that (1) faecal pellets are a vector for transport of microplastics, (2) polystyrene microplastics can alter the properties and sinking rates of zooplankton egests and, (3) faecal pellets can facilitate the transfer of plastics to coprophagous biota. Following exposure to 20.6 μm polystyrene microplastics (1000 microplastics mL–1) and natural prey (∼1650 algae mL–1) the copepod Calanus helgolandicus egested faecal pellets with significantly (P < 0.001) reduced densities, a 2.25-fold reduction in sinking rates, and a higher propensity for fragmentation. We further show that microplastics, encapsulated within egests of the copepod Centropages typicus, could be transferred to C. helgolandicus via coprophagy. Our results support the proposal that sinking faecal matter represents a mechanism by which floating plastics can be vertically transported away from surface waters.

Matthew Cole, Penelope K. Lindeque, Elaine Fileman, James Clark, Ceri Lewis, Claudia Halsband, and Tamara S. Galloway, Environ. Sci. Technol., 50 (6), pp 3239–3246, 2016

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