Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

How a Small Piece of Plastic Wrap Likely Killed a Harp Seal

Animals
Juvenile harp seal. Virginia State Parks / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A young harp seal that washed up dead on the Scottish Isle of Skye last Friday likely died of health complications after ingesting a small piece of plastic wrap, according to scientists who examined the animal.

Scientists with the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (SMASS) performed a necropsy on the animal and described it as an "unusual case" in a Facebook post Wednesday. First, Scotland is outside of the normal range for the Arctic harp seal. Secondly, death from plastic ingestion is rare for seals.


"Plastic ingestion in cetaceans and seals is really rare," veterinary pathologist and SMASS head Andrew Brownlow told National Geographic, noting that entanglement from fishing nets or lines is usually the cause of most deaths. "They're intelligent animals that seem to be able to distinguish between plastic and prey."

Brownlow, who wrote the Facebook post, said "it is plausible this hungry pup mistook this small bit of floating plastic for food."

The seal was likely under a year old and its carcass appeared autolyzed, dehydrated and emaciated. "We saw evidence of sepsis, no gross of trauma, a low parasite burden and it hadn't fed recently," Bronlow wrote, which indicates that the plastic was not the direct cause but potentially led to a number of health complications.

During the necropsy, the scientists found a 2-inch piece of compacted plastic wrap lodged in its stomach. They determined the fragment had been stuck in place for some time and blocked the stomach's pyloric sphincter, which empties into the intestines, meaning the debris likely prevented the stomach from emptying.

"Once in the stomach, it would not be broken down, and became partially lodged in the narrow opening into the intestine," Brownlow wrote. "A healthy fit pup would probably have been able to safely manage ingesting a fragment of plastic this size, but in an already compromised animal it could have been influential in its death."

Harp seals, which are not endangered, are usually found in the northern hemisphere. However, it's not impossible for the highly migratory species to wander south. Brownlow told National Geographic that the animal could have been born in northern Norway but ended up in Scottish waters because it might have been lost or was following other seals or prey.

In the Facebook post, he also suggested that climate change could be a factor: "As with all ice-associated marine mammals there is concern as to the impacts from global climate warming and the extent and seasonal duration of sea ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere. Pinnipeds such as the harp seal that are dependent on sea ice for pupping, molting and resting are likely to be heavily impacted by future changes in their sea ice habitats."

Brownlow noted that the seal's unfortunate death is "yet another reminder of the impact of plastic pollution in the marine environment."

"We are in the process of running additional tests," he added, "but this case again highlights the problem of marine debris floating around in our oceans—for a weakened seal pup such as this, even a piece of plastic the size of a sweet wrapper is potentially fatal."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Women walk from Santa Monica beach after a social media workout on the sand on May 12, 2020 in Santa Monica, California. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Independence Day weekend is a busy time for coastal communities as people flock to the beaches to soak up the sun during the summer holiday. This year is different. Some of the country's most popular beach destinations in Florida and California have decided to close their beaches to stop the surge in coronavirus cases.

Read More Show Less
Daily fireworks in many U.S. cities in recent weeks have no doubt been interfering with the sleep and peace of mind of thousands of veterans and others who suffer from PTSD. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Arash Javanbakht

For some combat veterans, the Fourth of July is not a time to celebrate the independence of the country they love. Instead, the holiday is a terrifying ordeal. That's because the noise of fireworks – loud, sudden, and reminiscent of war – rocks their nervous system. Daily fireworks in many U.S. cities in recent weeks have no doubt been interfering with the sleep and peace of mind of thousands of veterans.

Read More Show Less
Koala populations across parts of Australia are on track to become extinct before 2050 unless "urgent government intervention" occurs. Mathias Appel / Flickr

Koala populations across parts of Australia are on track to become extinct before 2050 unless "urgent government intervention" occurs, warns a year-long inquiry into Australia's "most loved animal." The report published by the Parliament of New South Wales (NSW) paints a "stark and depressing snapshot" of koalas in Australia's southeastern state.

Read More Show Less
NASA is advancing tools like this supercomputer model that created this simulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to better understand what will happen to Earth's climate if the land and ocean can no longer absorb nearly half of all climate-warming CO2 emissions. NASA/GSFC

By Jeff Berardelli

For the past year, some of the most up-to-date computer models from the world's top climate modeling groups have been "running hot" – projecting that global warming may be even more extreme than earlier thought. Data from some of the model runs has been confounding scientists because it challenges decades of consistent projections.

Read More Show Less
A child stands in what is left of his house in Utuado, Puerto Rico, which was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria, on Oct. 12, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jon-Paul Rios. Flickr, CC by 2.0
By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

To hear many journalists tell it, the spring of 2020 has brought a series of extraordinary revelations. Look at what the nation has learned: That our health-care system was not remotely up to the challenge of a deadly pandemic. That our economic safety net was largely nonexistent. That our vulnerability to disease and death was directly tied to our race and where we live. That our political leadership sowed misinformation that left people dead. That systemic racism and the killing of Black people by police is undiminished, despite decades of protest and so many Black lives lost.
Read More Show Less
President Trump's claim last September that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama's gulf coast was quickly refuted by employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). An independent investigation found that NOAA's chief violated the agency's ethics when he backed Trump's warning and doctored map that used a Sharpie to alter the storm's path, as EcoWatch reported.
Read More Show Less

Trending

African bush elephants in the Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve in Botswana on Nov. 22, 2016. Michael Jansen / Flickr

More than 350 elephants have died in Botswana since May, and no one knows why.

Read More Show Less