One creature’s trash may be another creature’s lunch, according to new research out of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, which suggests that some Great Barrier Reef corals eat plastic pollution. While researchers continue to study the affect these microplastics could have on coral and marine health, the reefs will likely keep on eating, and thereby cleaning up, our mess.


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Researchers collected various scleractinian (stony) corals from the Great Barrier Reef and placed them into containers filled with seawater contaminated with microplastic particles. After two nights, the corals had eaten the plastic. In fact, the plastic was consumed at rates only slightly lower than the normal rate at which corals eat marine plankton, the study says.

“Corals get energy from photosynthesis by symbiotic algae living within their tissues, but they also feed on a variety of other food including zooplankton, sediment and other microscopic organisms that live in seawater,” says Nora Hall, a James Cook University masters graduate, who is the lead author of the study.

Related: Sea turtles face growing danger due to plastic trash in Australian waters

Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic widespread in marine ecosystems, particularly in inshore coral reefs. James Cook researchers found traces of polystyrene and polyethylene in the Great Barrier fringe reefs. Despite the pervasiveness of these particles around the world, their impact is poorly understood. The next step is shedding light on the affect plastic has on coral physiology and health as well as its influence on other marine organisms. In this study, plastic was found wrapped in digestive tissues deep within the coral polyp, raising concerns about the coral’s ability to digest its normal food.

Photos by Richard Whitcombe via Shutterstock

Via Environmental News Network