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Green Turtles Are Mistaking Plastic for the Sea Grass They Normally Eat

Animals
The green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) on Hikkaduwa coral reef, Sri Lanka. danilovi / E+ / Getty Images

Endangered green turtles are having a problem. They're mistaking plastic pollution for the seaweed they survive on, according to new research from the University of Exeter in the UK and the Society for the Protection of Turtles in Cyprus, as Newsweek reported.


Green sea turtles use their eyesight to find food, so long, thin bits of green, black or clear plastic that resemble sea grass deceived many turtles. And, the younger they were, the more likely they were to mistake plastic for their dietary staple, study reported. The paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Black trash bags, fragments of fishing ropes and takeaway bags all have the potential to confuse turtles, the BBC reported.

"Previous research has suggested leatherback turtles eat plastic that resembles their jellyfish prey, and we wanted to know whether a similar thing might be happening with green turtles," said Dr. Emily Duncan, of the University of Exeter who was the paper's lead author, in a statement. "Sea turtles are primarily visual predators — able to choose foods by size and shape — and in this study we found strong evidence that green turtles favor plastic of certain sizes, shapes and colors."

The researchers studied of 34 turtles that had washed up on the beaches of the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus. They were able to look at the insides of 19 turtles. All of them had swallowed plastic.

One had swallowed 183 pieces of plastic, the BBC reported.

The plastic crisis is particularly troubling for younger turtles, which ate more plastic than the older ones, possibly because they were "less experienced" and so "more likely to eat the wrong food," the study said.

"Research like this helps us understand what sea turtles are eating, and whether certain kinds of plastic are being ingested more than others," said Prof. Brendan Godley, who leads the Exeter Marine research strategy, in a University of Exeter press release.

"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," she said.

The plastic crisis is a worldwide scourge for marine life, which routinely mistake plastic for food and feel full, but do not get any nutrition. This past spring, a whale washed up on the shores of the Philippines with nothing in its belly but 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Then a few weeks later, 48 pounds of plastic were found in the belly of a pregnant whale that washed ashore in Sardinia in Italy.

Besides swallowing plastic, marine life can get caught in plastic debris. Last month, a study published in Endangered Species Research tallied hundreds of sharks and rays that had been entangled in discarded plastic, as EcoWatch reported.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.