Plastic smells like supper for some seabirds. When the ubiquitous material ends up in the ocean, it gives off a chemical that albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters often use to locate food, researchers report online November 9 in Science Advances. That might lead the birds to ingest harmful junk instead of a real meal.
Researchers let small beads of three common plastics linger off the coast of California. After a couple of weeks, the once-clean plastic accumulated grit, grime and bacteria that gave off an odiferous gas called dimethyl sulfide. Phytoplankton give off the same gas, and certain seabirds use its odor as a cue that dinner is nearby. Birds that rely more heavily on dimethyl sulfide as a beacon for a nearby meal are more likely to ingest plastic than birds that don’t, the team found. And other plankton-feeding marine animals could be also be fooled.