Understanding the threats: plastic pollution and migrating shorebirds

Discarded plastic is a significant environmental contaminant. Plastic pollution is found in marine and freshwater systems and affects a substantial number of aquatic species around the world, either by entanglement or ingestion of small pieces (i.e. microplastics). These plastic debris release dangerous chemicals with unknown toxic effects for species that rely on marine environments to survive. Estuarine mudflats are critical feeding habitats for migratory shorebirds and are also the last stop for high levels of microplastics coming from populated areas via freshwater rivers. This combination of food resources and plastic load make shorebirds highly susceptible to microplastic ingestion and plastic-derived chemical consequences. Studies reporting microplastics in shorebirds are limited and information to evaluate non-lethal effects on behavior or physiology are non-existent. This study looks to fill these knowledge gaps by using non-lethal sampling methods of live birds on two migratory flyways (Pacific and Atlantic) where we expect differences in plastics exposure. Given that shorebirds mostly use estuarine habitats to rest and prepare for long-distance migrations, we will test for relationships between microplastic load, chemical burden, and migratory performance. We will use automatic tracking devices and will examine migratory indices such as migration timing and body condition for relationships with level of plastic debris exposure. This applied study will enhance the intern’s research skills and it complies under several conservation purposes of the partner organization.

Eveling Tavera Fernandez
Faculty Supervisor: 
Kirsty Gurney
Partner University: