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Concerns for wildlife as three-quarters of dead birds had swallowed plastic, University study finds

University of Gloucestershire is undertaking research into the impact of plastic on wildlife after collaborating on a study that found almost three-quarters of a species of bird found dead at a popular breeding location in Wales, had ingested plastic.

Coordinated by Dr Matt Wood, Senior Lecturer in Biology at the University, students assisted researchers in examining the stomach contents of 34 Manx shearwaters – a cousin of much larger albatrosses – that had died from unknown causes on Skomer Island Nature Reserve, off the coast of Pembrokeshire.

The study, published in the journal Seabird, found that 27 of the dead birds – fledglings and adults – had ingested at least one piece of the 20 million tonnes of plastic that enter the world’s oceans, seas and rivers every year.

More than half of the world’s Manx shearwaters – around a million individuals – breed on the neighbouring islands of Skomer and Skokholm, where wildlife also includes puffins, seals and dolphins.

Dr Wood collaborated with researchers from Bristol Zoo, Nottingham Trent University, the University of the West of England, and the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales which manages Skomer Island.

The study shows that Manx shearwaters breeding on Skomer Island are vulnerable to plastic ingestion and that adults are likely to pass plastic to their chicks.

Shearwater chicks remain in their burrows for up to 70 days after hatching, and so they must be consuming plastics along with fish and squid food brought back to the nest burrow and regurgitated by their parents.

Clear and yellow plastics were most commonly ingested by adults, which may have been mistaken for prey. Shearwaters are mostly surface-feeders, which means they may be particularly susceptible to ingestion of floating plastics.

Dr Wood, from the University’s School of Natural, Social and Sport Sciences, said, “We need to know more about what’s happening, because although we’re only seeing small amounts of plastics in Manx shearwaters compared to seabirds in places like the Pacific, it doesn’t mean it’s having no effect here.

“Microplastics can enter tissues, causing damage and inflammation, and they’re found everywhere in our environment, from the highest mountain to the deepest ocean.

“It is important to understand the effects of microplastics on wild animals, so we will be carrying out further analysis at the University to discover the impact and what steps we need to be considering to mitigate this global threat.”