Programmes such as the BBC’s Blue Planet and Hugh’s War on Plastic, have drawn attention to the threat plastics pose to sea-life. However, little is known about the impacts on the UK’s land-based species, such as hedgehogs, rabbits and voles.
A team of researchers from the Mammal Society have set out to assess the exposure of wild mammals to waste plastics across the UK. By analysing the droppings of some of our most widespread species, including squirrels, mice, rats and shrews, they aim to uncover the extent to which these plastics are eaten, and understand the health threats posed by different types of plastic, through both ingestion and entanglement.
In the UK, food packaging accounts for 67% of plastic waste, which is far higher than that of many other EU countries. Reports suggest that contamination by microplastic (tiny particles of plastic) in terrestrial habitats may be as much as 30 times higher than in marine habitats, yet most attention has focused on sea-life. Studies conducted so far on terrestrial ecosystems have mostly focused on worms, soils and chickens and, worryingly, these results have suggested that microplastics are present in high quantities.
By focusing on small mammals, researchers will be able to assess the health of ecosystems as a whole. If small mammals, which are vital prey for a wide variety of species such as foxes, weasels, barn owls and kestrels, are ingesting microplastics, this would have a knock-on impact throughout the food chain. By studying mice, rats, shrews, rabbits, hedgehogs, squirrels and voles the Mammal Society hopes to better understand the current situation and raise awareness of the effects of microplastics on the UK’s terrestrial wildlife.
Chair of the Mammal Society, Fiona Mathews, said “One in five of Britain’s mammals is at risk of extinction, and the conservation status of many other species remains unknown. It is therefore important to identify, and address, possible threats. For example, currently we don’t know whether hedgehogs are ingesting microplastics, but given the evidence of microplastics in earthworms, then this seems a likely possibility. In addition, small mammals are the most likely group of animals to actively chew larger pieces of plastic, particularly that which has been used for wrapping food. This could be a key pathway for microplastics getting into soils, waterways and food webs in terrestrial ecosystems.”
Over time, many forms of plastic waste degrade into smaller fragments which can end up in soil and waterways. In addition, land-based wildlife frequently encounter plastic from sources such as carrier bags, plastic bottles and packaging, and chew on them. Not only could this be a direct threat to the animals themselves, but the tiny plastic fragments that emerge in their droppings are likely to enter soils and be ingested by worms and other invertebrates.
Through studies in marine ecosystems, it is understood that there are also cumulative effects when smaller organisms that have ingested microplastic are eaten by their predators. While little is known of the impacts of microplastics on the health of mammals and birds, it has been shown that even small quantities of microplastics can stop normal growth and reduce the chance of successful breeding in animals such as marine worms and snails. It is therefore vital that research is conducted to find out more about the effects on land animals.
Emily Dempster, a Masters student at the University of Sussex, is leading the research. She said “I am very excited to have the opportunity to work on this for my masters research and to be heading up the first, hugely important, research project into the ingestion of plastics by terrestrial mammals. I have started to work on the samples and, worryingly, I’ve already found a number that appear to contain microplastics.”
The results of the study will be published in Summer 2021. In the meantime, there are a number of ways to get involved in the study or donate to the Mammal Society’s appeal for the equipment they vitally need for the laboratory analyses.
Get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org or donate to the Mammal Society #PlasticInMammals appeal on https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/12151#!/DonationDetails. Find out more about this research project at https://www.mammal.org.uk/science-research/are-britains-wild-animals-eating-plastics/.
Wood mouse – © Samuel Hood
Rabbit – © Kavanagh
Hedgehog – © Marc Baldwin
Wood mouse faeces magnified 10 x 2.5 showing possible presence of plastic – © Mammal Society/Emily Dempster
Hedgehog faeces magnified 10 x 2.5 showing possible presence of plastic – © Mammal Society/Emily Dempster