Wildlife & Biodiversity

No evidence of microplastics in emperor penguins, says study

The future of emperor penguins remains uncertain despite positive findings about its ecology

By Swathi Parwathi
Published: Thursday 06 October 2022

A study conducted by the University of Basel in Switzerland and the Alfred-Wegener Institute in Germany has found no evidence of microplastics in the stomachs of emperor penguins. The study is an important assessment of environmental pollution at the South Pole.

Researchers analysed the gizzard contents of 41 chicks found dead in the colony in Atka Bay, a remote area on the north-eastern edge of the Ekström Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

“We had already conducted studies of water samples there and discovered microplastics, albeit in low concentrations,” Clara Leistenschneider, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Basel, was quoted as saying in a statement.

They visually identified 85 potential plastic particles up to half a millimetre in size under the microscope and used spectral analysis to determine these particles’ properties.

The researchers did not find any synthetic polymers in gizzards, as they report in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

The future of emperor penguins remains uncertain despite positive findings. The rise in tourism and commercial fishing will lead to an increase of microplastic presence in the Southern Ocean.

“Plastic and microplastic pollution at the poles is a huge problem. And it is only going to get even more complex. The international community will have to come around and agree to a permanent solution on plastic pollution in the oceans,” M Ravichandran, secretary, Union Ministry of Earth Sciences told Down To Earth.

A study published October 9, 2019, in the journal Biological Conservation by an international team of researchers had suggested that the species’ status be changed to ‘vulnerable’ from ‘near threatened’ in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

The emperor penguin is a species that needs a special environment to breed and enhance its numbers. The birds need sea ice during the time that they incubate their eggs and while they raise their chicks.

They also need stable sea ice after they complete breeding during the time when they undertake their annual moult, a period during which they cannot enter the water as their feathers are no longer water-proof.

The Alfred-Wegener Institute plans to monitor the Atka Bay emperor penguin colony regularly to track the process of contamination over the long term.

(with inputs from Rajat Ghai)

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