Green Turtles are Eating Trash Bags Thinking They're Food, with Young Animals Most Likely to Get Confused

Endangered green turtles are confusing plastic for food, with young animals in particular getting mixed up, according to scientists.

Sea turtles mostly find their food visually, by assessing the colour and shape of an object to work out if it is edible. And seagrass and algae, some of their favourite foods, look like plastic.

Emily Duncan, a postdoctoral researcher in marine conservation and pollution at the University of Exeter who co-authored the paper published in the journal Scientific Reports commented in a statement: "The sources of this plastic might include things like black bin [trash] bags, and fragments from items such as fishing rope and carrier bags."

Researchers at the University of Exeter and the Society for the Protection of Turtles studied 34 turtles who had washed up on the beaches of on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and found they were particularly attracted to pieces of plastic which looked like sheets or threads, and were black, clear or green.

The team were able to look at the gastrointestinal tracts of 19 turtles. All of them had eaten plastic, ranging from 3 to 183 pieces in total.

Smaller, juvenile turtles had eaten more plastic than bigger animals, the researchers found. That could be because of their naivety, wrote the authors.

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A stock image of a green sea turtle swimming in an underwater lagoon. Scientists have studied how the animals interact with plastic. Getty

The team concluded that green turtles, particularly younger individuals, who feed in the coastal waters of Cyprus regularly encounter and eat plastic, "so much so that the vast majority of animals contain some plastic in their GI [gastrointestinal] tract, at the time of their death," the authors wrote.

The findings mirror past studies which show other species of turtle get mixed up between food and waste. Leatherbacks, for instance, gobble up plastic bags, likely thinking they are jellyfish.

The problem doesn't just affect greens and leatherbacks. "Extremely high densities" of plastic are found on coastlines in ocean gyres across the world, leading to all sea turtles, at least 43 percent of cetaceans (such as dolphins and whales), 36 percent of sea birds, and many fish species being found to have ingested plastic waste, the authors highlighted citing existing studies.

Professor Brendan Godley, who leads the Exeter Marine research strategy at the University of Exeter and co-authored the work, commented: "Research like this helps us understand what sea turtles are eating, and whether certain kinds of plastic are being ingested more than others.

"It's important to know what kinds of plastic might be a particular problem, as well as highlighting issues that can help motivate people to continue to work on reducing overall plastic consumption and pollution."