The Impacts of Microplastics on Zooplankton
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
Two chapters are awaiting publication.
In recent years there has been growing environmental concern regarding ‘microplastics’: microscopic plastic granules, fibres and fragments, categorised as <1 or <5 mm diameter. Microplastics are manufactured to be of a microscopic size, or derive from the photo- and mechanical degradation and subsequent fragmentation of larger plastic litter. Microplastics debris has been identified in the water column and sediments of marine and freshwater ecosystems across the globe, although difficulties in sampling and isolating smaller particulates has resulted in the abundance of <333 µm microplastics being under-reported. Microplastics are bioavailable to a range of aquatic organisms, including fish, seabirds and benthic invertebrates, and can be trophically transferred. The consumption of plastic debris can result in gut blockages, heightened immune response and a loss of lipid reserves. The potential risk to food security, and thereby human health, has led regulators to call for better understanding of the fate and effects of microplastic debris on marine life. Here I tested the hypothesis that microplastics can be ingested by and may negatively impact upon zooplankton. Zooplankton encompass a range of aquatic animals that form a key trophic link between primary producers and the rest of the marine food web. I used a suite of feeding experiments, bio-imaging techniques and ecotoxicological studies to explore the interactions and impacts of polystyrene microplastics on marine zooplankton. My results demonstrate that a range of filter-feeding zooplankton taxa, including copepods and bivalve and decapod larvae, have the capacity to ingest microplastics. Microplastics significantly reduced algal feeding in the copepods Centropages typicus and Calanus helgolandicus. With prolonged microplastic exposure C. helgolandicus produced smaller eggs with reduced hatching success, and had reduced survival owing to declining energetic reserves. Microplastics egested by copepods significantly altered the properties and sinking rates of faecal pellets, with potential repercussions for marine nutrient flux. This investigative work highlights that microplastics pose a significant risk to the health of animals at the base of the marine food web.
Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Halsband, C., Galloway, T.S., 2011. Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin 62, 2588-2597.
Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Fileman, E., Halsband, C., Goodhead, R., Moger, J., Galloway, T.S., 2013. Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton. Environmental Science & Technology 12, 6646-6655.
Cole, M., Webb, H., Lindeque, P., Fileman, E., Halsband, C., Galloway, T.S., 2014. Isolation of microplastics in biota-rich samples and marine biota. Nature Scientific Reports. (4) 4528.
PhD in Biological Sciences