One week is all it takes for a piece of plastic floating in the ocean to begin to smell like turtle food, researchers from University of North Carolina have found.
To understand sea turtle behavior around ocean plastics, the research team compared how sea turtles in a lab setting reacted to smelling odors of turtle food, ocean-soaked plastic, clean plastic and water.
The turtles ignored the scents of clean plastic and water, but responded to the odors of food and ocean-soaked plastics by showing foraging behavior. This included poking their noses out of the water repeatedly as they tried to smell the food source, and increasing their activity as they searched.
The turtles did not ingest plastics during the experiments and were released into the ocean after the study.
“Very young turtles feed at the surface, and plastics that float on the surface of the ocean affect them,” said Kayla M. Goforth, a Carolina biology doctoral student who worked on the study. “Older turtles feed further down in the water column, sometimes on the ocean bottom. Regardless of where plastics are distributed in the ocean, turtles are likely to eat them.”