Plastic - Eaten By Animals

Like other plastics nurdles are often mistaken for food by animals like sea birds, fish and crustaceans.

180 species of marine animals including, mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates have been found to have ingested plastic. Plastic can get trapped in the animal's stomach causing ulceration, making them feel full and stopping them eating real food. It is also very likely that highly toxic chemicals on the surface of the plastic transfer into the food chain. 

Fish Eggs?photo roe fulmar nurdles sm

At this size colourless nurdles look like fish eggs or other small animals and are mistaken for food particularly by seabirds, Ryan (1987).



Herring roe / nurdles 


 Herring roe / nurdles © Erin McKittrick/Ground Truth Trekking / ©J.A. van Franeker, IMARES

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  • Birds caught in the Bering Sea shown to contain plastic pieces, Robards et al. (1995)

Limosa lapponica
Over the winter around 38,000 of these wading birds visit the UK. They flock to mudflats and flooded fields where they eat worms, snails and insects.

© Andreas Trepte,


  • Found to ingest plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)
  • As far back as 1971 nurdles  were  found in regurgitated tern pellets around the industrial areas of New York, Hays and Cormons (1974)

Chlidonias niger
This bird used to breed in the UK in very large numbers, but because of habitat loss they now only visit the UK on their way to and from breeding grounds in Europe. When they return to estuaries and coasts after breeding they do not dive for fish like white terns but pick up fish and other prey from the surface of the water whilst on the wing.

© Ómar Runólfsson


  • 25% of Common gulls studied in the Bering Sea contained plastic particles, Robards et al. (1995)
  • 76% of all plastic particles found were ‘industrial pellets’, Robards et al. (1995)
  • 25% increase in number of birds affected by plastic pollution between 1988 and 1995, Robards et al. (1995)

Larus canus
The Common gull is in fact quite uncommon and as such has an amber conservation status. They get their name because as well as feeding at sea they also find food on ‘common ground’. They can often be seen marching on the spot imitating the patter of rain which brings worms to the surface.

© Lars Falkdalen Lindahl


  • Found to ingest plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)
  • As far back as 1971 nurdles have been found in regurgitated Tern pellets around New York industrial areas, Hays and Cormons (1974)

Sterna hirundo
These beautiful birds have long tails and so are often called ‘sea swallows’. They arrive in the UK in April and stay until August or September.

They dive into the sea to catch their prey, mainly fish but they also eat molluscs, crustaceans and other invertebrates.

© Tony Hisgett


  • 83% of fledgling birds caught were found to contain plastic, Rodríguez et al. (2012)
  • On average 8 pieces of plastic were retrieved per bird, Rodríguez et al. (2012)

Calonectris diomedea
These large birds have a wingspan of over a meter which helps them glide over the sea.  They can dive up to 15m in search of prey like fish, squid and crustaceans. They are rarely seen near land but often follow fishing boats waiting for scraps to be thrown overboard.

A very recent study has shown that there is a widespread pattern of Cory’s Shearwater parents feeding fledglings plastics (Rodríguez et al. 2012).

© Artie Kopelman


  • In the North Sea 95% of 1295 Fulmars studied contained plastic, van Franeker et al. (2011)
  •  Between 1999 and 2003 each bird contained an average of 35 pieces of plastic, van Franeker et al. (2011)
  • Since 1982 Fulmars stomach contents have been used as an indicator for marine litter distribution, van Franeker et al. (2011)

Fulmarus glacialis
Found only on the Island of St Kilda until the 1900s there are now more than half million pairs breeding around the coast of the Britain. These pretty birds feed exclusively at sea on crustaceans, squid, fish and discarded scraps from fishing boats, usually from the surface of the water.

They do not regurgitate their food, except when feeding their chicks so they accumulate plastic in their stomach. As a result Fulmars are used across the globe to provide a snapshot sample of small plastic pollution over large offshore areas.

© whisky golf

Plastic contained in the stomach of one fulmar - © J.A. van Franeker, Wageningen IMARES



  • Bird ingested and subsequently starved to death as a result of plastic ingestion, Pierce et al. (2004)

Morus bassanus
As adults these elegant birds are bright white with black wingtips making them difficult to mistake. In search of fish, they dive into the sea from around 25m up reaching speeds 60 miles per hour as they break the surface. They breed in very large colonies or rookeries. The locations of these colonies are so uncommon that they are an amber list species.

Although reports of plastic ingestion in this species are relatively scarce entanglement in plastic debris is common. Many birds have been found at sea ensnared in derelict fishing gear. Gannets also use plastic fragments particularly lost fishing nets and line to line its nest, adults and chicks can then get entangled and die, Laist (1997).


© Andreas Trepte,


  • Shown to ingest plastic, Day et al. (1985) referred to in Laist (1997)

Larus marinus
The largest of the gulls and bigger than a buzzard it is a top predator. There is not much that it will not eat, from fish caught far out to sea to small mammals, other birds. It has adapted well to human behaviour and is a familiar presence in cities. However it is still chiefly a seabird and its numbers are highest close to the coast, particularly during the breading season.

© Robert Eliassen


  • 90% of birds studied contained plastic, Ryan (1987)
  • 79 pieces of plastic were retrieved from one  birds, Ryan (1987)

Puffinus gravis
Although only a visitor to the UK they can be seen frequently in Ireland and the South West of Britain from July to September.

They use a cushion of air to glide over the surface of the sea their wings almost touching or ‘shearing’ the surface. They feed mostly on small fish and squid which they plunge dive for or more normally catch from the surface.

Nurdles retrieved from these birds were tested for highly toxic persistent organic pollutants. The results supported the fact that plastic is a significant source of exposure to these harmful chemicals (Colabuono et al. 2010)

© Patrick Coin


  • Birds caught had ingested plastic, Robards et al. (1995)

Uria aalge
The UK has a population of around 1.3million Guillemots. Breeding on sheer cliffs around the coast they are one of the most frequent birds in our great ‘seabird cities’. They spend most of their time at sea and can dive to depths of 60m to catch fish.

Guillemots are not too susceptible to plastic ingestion as they dive for food, however in Subarctic Alaska, one of the most pristine environments in the world; these birds had been found ingesting plastic.

© Ómar Runólfsson


  • 10% of the Kittiwakes captured contained plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)
  • On average 2.5 pieces were retrieved from each bird containing plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)

Rissa tridactyla
These graceful birds can be seen nesting in noisy colonies on the cliffs around coast. Once they have reared their young they head back out into the Atlantic. They feed by grabbing food from the surface of the sea or plunge diving to catch prey just below the surface. They eat mainly fish and in Scotland there has been a significant decline in their population because, it is thought, of a shortage of sand eels.

© Michael Haferkamp


  • More than 50% of  birds collected on St Kilda contained plastic, Furness (1985)
  • On average 3 nurdles were retrieved from each bird found containing plastic, Furness (1985)
  • 50% of birds caught in Subarctic Alaska had ingested plastic, Robards et al. (1995)

Oceanodroma leucorhoa
Despite being about the size of a starling these birds can live for a very long time, a 36 year old bird was once recorded.

They spend most of their time at sea where they feed on plankton, small fish, molluscs and crustaceans. They breed on remote islands off the West coast of Scotland and only come on to land after dark to avoid being attacked by predators.

© U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Schlawe C.


  • Birds studied shown to ingest plastic, van Franeker (1983) referred to in Laist (1997)

Alle alle
These hardy little birds breed in the arctic, and then spend winter in the North Atlantic. Outside of their breeding season they spend long periods of time floating around on the strong ocean currents, and are only seen when blown towards land during strong gales. Their body shape allows them to be very effective at diving for tiny marine crustaceans reaching depths of 35 metres.

© Michael Haferkamp


  • 30% of birds collected on Rhum contained plastic, Furness (1985)
  • On average 3 grams of plastic recovered from each of the birds containing plastic, Moser and Lee (1992)

Puffinus puffinus
Almost 300,000 pairs breed in the UK, mainly on the West Coast. Their unusual call scared Norse sailors who believed that the Island of Rhum was inhabited by Trolls. They are an incredibly long lived bird and one individual thought to be at least  55 years old  and nesting in Northern Ireland was pronounced the oldest living wild bird in the world. They feed on small fish, crustaceans and squid and often home in on feeding marine mammals that bring shoals of fish to the surface.

© Matt Witt


  • 20 pellets recovered from one bird, Harris and Wanless (1994)
  • 13% of birds collected from UK seas contained plastic pellets, elastic or nylon thread, Harris and Wanless (1994)
  • Since 1972 Puffins from the North Sea  have been found to ingest plastic, Parslow and Jefferies (1972) referred to in Laist (1997)

Fratercula arctica
The Puffin is one of the world’s favourite birds and the UK is home to around 579,000 pairs during breeding season. They spend the winter months on their own in the open ocean and are difficult to find so their life at sea is still a bit of a mystery.

They are very proficient divers using their wings like paddles and their feet like rudders as they catch fish.

Puffins are often used to monitor the health of an ecosystem, as they are high up the food chain and so accumulate higher levels of toxins in their tissues.

© Mark Medcalf


  • 75% of birds sampled contained plastic, Blight and Burger (1997)
  • 23 pieces of plastic were found in one bird, Blight and Burger (1997)
  • Nurdles made up 34% of plastics found in birds examined, Ryan (1987)

Puffinis griseus
These birds are only visitors to our shores during their truly epic 8,700 miles migrations. They travel from their breeding ground in the Falkland Island up the West coast of the Atlantic to the ocean ending their journey around Norway. They pass the UK on their return journey down the East Coast of the Atlantic. 

They can dive down to 65m in search of prey, but mainly take food from the surface making them particularly susceptible to feeding on floating plastic debris.

© JJ Harrison


  • birds studied shown to ingest plastic, van Franeker (1983) referred to in Laist (1997)

Hydrobates pelagicus
Sailors thought these birds were a sign of impending storms, and were sometimes believed to be the souls of sailors lost at sea.

Petrels are the smallest seabirds, about the size and shape of a house martin. To avoid being eaten by larger animals they are strictly nocturnal only coming back to land to feed chicks under cover of darkness.

Feeding mainly on plankton and small fish, its feet patter on the water as it flutters down to pick up food from the surface of the sea.

© A Rocha / Rob Thomas


  • Acorn barnacles readily ingest microplastics, Thompson et al. (2004)

Semibalanus balanoides
Charles Darwin was fascinated by barnacles, and much of what is known about them is because of his studies. Acorn barnacles are very common and live in the intertidal zone where they can grow up to 15mm in diameter. When they are covered by the tide they open and use their feathery cirri filters to catch food like zooplankton from the sea. Although they have a tough exterior, they are eaten by other sea creatures like sea slugs, whelks and some fish.

An early scientific study was carried out to establish if marine filter feeders ingest microscopic plastics. The study showed ingestion of microplastics within a few days of exposure. (Thompson et al. 2004)

© I F Smith


  • Plastics listed as 'Prey Item' in the UK fish stomach content analysis, Pinnegar and Platts (2011) referenced in Leslie et al. (2011)

Gadus morhua
A favourite for making fish and chips, Atlantic cod can grow up to 2m in length and live for 25 years.  They eat a wide variety of food from worms to fish the size of a herring. They are now labelled as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

© Patrick Gijsbers


  • 16 of the 56 mackerel caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average 1.5 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Trachurus trachurus
This fish gets its name from a folk tale that smaller fish rode on its back to travel long distances. They congregate in large schools near the coast where they feed on crustaceans, squid and other fishes. One of the important schooling areas for these fish is in the seas around the Hebrides.

© Rob Spray 2013


  • Like many bivalves, this species readily ingests microscopic polystyrene, Brillant and MacDonald (2000)
  • Lighter polystyrene beads were retained longer in the gut than heavier glass beads of the same size, Brillant and MacDonald (2000)

Placopecten magellanicus
In Scotland the scallop is the second most valuable shellfish caught. Like all scallops the Atlantic sea scallop is a filter feeder living mainly on sandy or gravel sea beds where it feeds on plankton.

Like all filter feeders they are well known for accumulating toxins.

© Dann Blackwood


  • Ingested microscopic polystyrene particles move from the mussel’s gut into the circulatory system, Browne et al. (2008)
  • Nano particles which had collected on the plastics surface also move from the gut into the circulatory system, Browne et al. (2008)
  • Plastic particles persisted in the circulatory system for over 48 days, Browne et al. (2008)

Mytilus edulis
Blue mussels are extremely common around the coast of the UK where they feed on plankton, bacteria and detritus which they filter from the sea. They are not only one of our favourite seafoods, but are also eaten by whelks, crabs, sea urchins and oyster catchers.

Blue mussels are often chosen in scientific studies because of their high filtration rate resulting in the accumulation of high levels of toxins in their tissues.

© OCEANA/Carlos Minguell


  • 52% of the Whiting  caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Micromesistius poutassou
This member of the Cod family is found around the coast of the UK and can grow up to 70cm in length.  This fish is not usually sold fresh but processed into fish meal and oil. Because the stocks are below safe biological limits in the UK it is currently a UK priority species.



  • 38% of these fish  caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average 1.5 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Callionymus lyra
These stunning fish are widespread around the UK using their fins to claim territory and display to females. They are usually found partially buried in sand or gravel where they prey on worms, crustaceans and molluscs, especially cockles.

© Hans Hillewaert


  • Plastics listed as 'Prey Item' in the UK fish stomach content analysis, Pinnegar and Platts (2011) referenced in Leslie et al. (2011)

Eutrigla gurnardus
A member of the ‘Sea Robin’ family these fish produce a croaking sound when they are competing for food. Although not sold fresh they are processed into fish meal.

© Geir Friestad


  • 48% of the John Dory caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average over 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Zeus faber
Also known as Peter’s fish after its association with Saint Peter, the John Dory lives near the seabed where it eats schooling fish like sardines and can grow up to 3kg in weight. The spot on its sides are used to flash an ‘evil eye’ if danger approaches. The spot can also be used to confuse prey allowing them to be sucked into its big mouth.

© Sue Daly



  • 85% of the langoustine caught in the Clyde Estuary contained microplastic in their gut, Murray and Cowie (2011)

Nephrops norvegicus
Also known as the Norway lobster, Dublin Bay prawn and scampi the langoustine is the most important commercial crustacean in Europe. They prefer living in muddy seabed sediment where they build burrows. They come out at night to feed mainly on worms and fish.

© Hans Hillewaert



  • Lugworms readily ingest microplastics, Thompson et al. (2004)
  • There is a positive relationship between plastic uptake and weight loss in Lugworms, Besseling et al. (2013)

Arenicola marina
These worms are rarely seen except when dug for bait by fishermen, but their casts are a familiar sight on our beaches. They live in burrows where they filter sand for food, growing up to 23cm in length.

© Omar Ahned



  • Not only does this animal readily feed on microscopic plastic but also ingested PVC pellets, Graham and Thompson (2009)
  • 34 PVC pellets were ingested at one feeding , Graham and Thompson (2009)
  • This animal probably selects plastic over sand to ingest , Graham and Thompson (2009)

Cucumaria frondosa
This is one of the most widespread species of sea cucumber but in the UK it is found only around the Orkney and Shetland Isles. It often lives amongst the kelp where it uses is 10 bushy tentacles to catch food from the surrounding seawater.

© Ryan Murphy


  • 40% of the Poor cod caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average around 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Trisopterus minutus
Poor cod is one of the most abundant fish around the UK. They live in small shoals feeding mainly on little fish and crustaceans like prawn, shrimp and crab. Although not often eaten by us, they are caught commercially and made into fish meal. They are also an important food for fish like Atlantic cod, whiting and hake as well as larger animals like seals, whales and dolphins.

© Paul Newland



  • Of 62 Red band fish caught for a study in UK seas 20 contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average over 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found with plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Cepola macrophthalma
This mysterious fish is often found in deep water. They live mainly in vertical burrows where they can hide and ambush prey.

© Biodiversity library



  • 50% of the Red gurnard caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average almost 2 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

Aspitrigla cuculus
This fish uses its finger like projections under its gills to ‘feel’ for small fish and crustaceans in the sediment. Although not commonly eaten, because its numbers are reasonably high it is being supported as an alternative to over -fished species from around the UK.

© Jim Anderson



  • Sandhoppers readily ingest microplastics, Thompson et al. (2004)

Orchestia gammarellus
A common sight on our beaches, Sand Hoppers spend most of their time buried in the sand or usually under seaweed. If disturbed by shore birds or humans they hop around randomly to escape from danger.

© R J Wesley


  • A 2013 scientific study has shown the natural transfer of microplastics from mussels to shore crabs, Farrell and Nelson (2013)
  • This study increases concern for the potential for microplastic to reach higher trophic levels, for the accumulation of environmental pollutants and for the health of animals, including humans.”Farrell and Nelson (2013)

Carcinus maenas
This is the most common crab around British shores and is often found in rock pools and shallow waters. They are an aggressive species and as a result of fighting one in ten will be missing a claw. They prey on most animals that they encounter including oysters, mussels and small crustaceans.

© Hans Hillewaert


  • Plastics listed as 'Prey Item' in the UK fish stomach content analysis , Pinnegar and Platts (2011) referenced in Leslie et al. (2011)
  • Whiting  caught in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average over 1.5 pieces were retrieved from each fish found containing plastic, Lusher et al. (2013)

 Merlangius Merlangus
Once considered a cheap fish only eaten by the poor and pets it is now commercially important. It looks very similar to its larger relatives cod and haddock and is found mainly around the South and West of the British Isles.

© Hakon


  • 26% of the Yellow sole caught for a study in UK seas contained plastic in their gut, Lusher et al. (2013)
  • On average at least one piece of plastic was retrieved from each fish, Lusher et al. (2013)

Buglossidium luteum
This small flat fish grows to a maximum 15cm in length and is often found half buried in the mud or sand of the sea bed. It feeds on a variety of crustaceans, molluscs and worms and is in high abundance in the English Channel.

© Hans Hillewaert

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