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Plastic Threat to our Seas

A new study builds on previous research by Queen’s University that showed hermit crabs were less likely to touch or enter high-quality shells when exposed to microplastics.  

The new study, published in Royal Society Open Science, provides a more in-depth insight into how the hermit crabs behaviour is affected when exposed to microplastics. The microplastics impair both the attacking and defending behaviour of hermit crabs during contests, impeding their ability to secure the larger shell that is required for both their growth and survival. 

Manus Cunningham from Queen’s University and one of the lead researchers on the paper, said:

“These findings are hugely significant as they illustrate how both the information-gathering and shell evaluations were impaired when exposed to microplastics.  

“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.” 

In previous articles The Orkney News has reported on research on the effect of microplastics in the marine environment:

How Much Plastic is in the Ocean?

During the research the micro plastic-exposed hermit crabs displayed weaker attacking behaviour (known as rapping) during fights than crabs that were not exposed to plastic. Microplastics also reduced the ability of defending crabs to properly assess their attackers during contests and impaired their decision to give up their shell earlier. 

Hermit crabs are known as scavengers as they recycle energy back into the ecosystem through eating-up decomposed sea-life and bacteria. As such they play a vital role in rebalancing the ecosystem and are an important part of marine life.  

Dr Gareth Arnott, the principal investigator of the project said:

“This study provides an insight into the potential for microplastics to alter important aspects of animal behaviour that are critical for survival and reproduction. We need to further investigate how microplastics affect their behaviour and the consequences, armed with this knowledge to advocate for change to protect our ecosystem.”  

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