A new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science has found that microplastics affect the behavior of hermit crabs, a key part of the ocean ecosystem. The study, conducted by Queen’s University, highlights how microplastics impact hermit crabs’ growth and reproduction.
In a press release, researchers explained the study’s methodology, saying, “The research involved keeping hermit crabs in two tanks: one which contained polyethylene spheres (a common microplastic pollutant) and one without plastic (control) for five days. The team simulated the environment to encourage a hermit crab contest through placing pairs of hermit crabs in an arena, giving the larger crab a shell that was too small and the smaller crab a shell that was too big.”
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Shell fights are crucial to the survival of hermit crabs. During shell fights, the crabs have to fight each other in contests over larger shells to occupy as their home. During their growth, crabs move from smaller shells and find new homes by fighting each other. According to the latest study, hermit crabs exposed to microplastics had impaired attacking and defending behavior. As a result, the researchers say that the crabs’ ability to grow and survive is weakened.
Hermit crabs are vital to the entire ocean ecosystem. As scavengers, these tiny animals help recycle energy back into the ecosystem. They feed on decomposed sea life and bacteria, helping rebalance the ecosystem.
One of the lead researchers on the paper, Manus Cunningham from Queen’s University, said, “These findings are hugely significant as they illustrate how both the information-gathering and shell evaluations were impaired when exposed to microplastics.”
According to Cunningham, there is not a significant amount of information available on how microplastics impact sea life. This is one of the first studies to show the exact threats microplastics pose for specific species.
“Although 10% of global plastic production ends up in the ocean, there is very limited research on how this can disrupt animal behaviour and cognition. This study shows how the microplastic pollution crisis is threatening biodiversity more than is currently recognised,” said Cunningham.
Lead image via Pixabay