Israeli researchers may have found a new way to track the planet’s growing plastic problem: sea squirts.
The small invertebrates, also known as ascidians, have typically been considered a pesky invasive species, but Israeli Scientists have now identified a property of sea squirts that could help with analyzing the waste and pollution levels in water bodies.
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Until recently, sea squirts were foreign to water bodies in and around the United States. But the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, sent an overwhelming amount of trash toward the West Coast of North America, and sea squirts along with it.
Invasive species are notoriously known to destroy ecosystems by altering native food chains — and sea squirts are no exception — but researchers have found that the small creatures, which latch onto other items and filter water, are absorbing microplastic particles, and can serve as a record of plastic pollution.
“[Sea squirts] just sit in one place all their life and filter the water, like a pump,” Gal Vered of Tel Aviv University, who co-published the researchers’ findings in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, told Reuters.
“They can really give us a picture of what the whole reef, the whole ecosystem felt during its life,” he said.
Sea squirts take in water through openings called siphons, which they also use for ingesting and expelling food and waste products. The creatures ultimately act like water filters, taking in water, absorbing nutrients, and releasing the leftover water and waste.
But in addition to nutrients,scientists at Tel Aviv University found that sea squirts are also absorbing enormous amounts of microplastics into their bodies.
Over time, plastic in the ocean begins to break down, but never completely disappears, instead it turns into microplastics, which may pose health risks to marine life that ingests it. According to an article in Telegraph, the most durable plastic products can take upto 450 years to degrade.
Scientists believe there are trillions of pieces of microplastics in the world’s oceans, but the tiny particles are difficult to measure and their overall impact is poorly understood.
“Plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats facing our oceans, with items ranging from whole plastic bottles to tiny microplastics being found in seas all around the world,” Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told, Independent recently.
Unfortunately, while sea squirts absorb some plastic, they don’t consume it or absorb nearly enough plastic to help clean up the planet.
A study undertaken by the World Economic Forum, revealed that 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans each year, equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
But thanks to the sea squirt, scientists may finally be able to measure just how much microplastic is entering the ocean.