Plastic Trash Rides Ocean Currents to the Arctic

ocean trash
ocean trash

Remember the last plastic straw you used? It may have simply ended up in a landfill. But there’s also a good chance that straw just began a very long journey. Maybe it tumbled out of a garbage truck, for example. The wind might have blown it to a site where rainwater washed it into some stream. Eventually, it might have floated down to the ocean. If that straw hitched a ride on an ocean current, it might have kept traveling. A new study finds that ocean currents send a surprising amount of plastic trash from the North Atlantic up into the Arctic.

And because plastic doesn’t readily break down in the environment, it can stick around long enough to cause trouble. Animals can get tangled in plastic netting or bags. Some critters may mistake it for food and eat it. From tiny plankton to the fish on our plates to sea birds and even whales, plastic increasingly has been finding its way onto the dinner menu of creatures around the world.

Andrés Cózar wanted to know just how far plastic waste travels — and where most of it ends up. Cózar is an oceanographer at the University of Cádiz in Puerto Real, Spain. He worked with scientists from eight different countries for his new study. The team spent five months traveling by boat around the Arctic Ocean.

sampling path
This map shows where researchers collected plastic from Arctic waters. The swooping green lines in the Atlantic Ocean show where the major currents flow.

They motored between Greenland and Norway, along the northern coast of Russia, past Alaska and Canada, and down into the Labrador Sea between North America and Greenland. Along the way, they collected samples of debris from 42 places in the ocean.

To do this, they dragged a net behind their boat. The researchers placed the net just below the water’s surface and dragged it for 20 minutes at a time as they traveled. Openings in the netting were tiny — between one-third and one-half of a millimeter (0.01 to 0.02 inch). Water could flow through them, but small pieces of plastic — called…

Seabirds use preening to decide how to divvy up parenting duties

Common murres
FAMILY AFFAIR Common murres take turns brooding their chick and foraging for fish. Preening each other acts as a health check and way to negotiate parental duties if one bird is in poorer condition, new research suggests.

Seabirds called common murres appear to use preening as a way to negotiate whose turn it is to watch their chick and who must find food. And when one parent is feeling foul, irregularities in this grooming ritual may send the other a signal that all is not well, researchers report in the July issue of The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

“The fascinating part of this study is the inference that communication between mates allows murres to negotiate the level of effort that each member of the pair puts into the breeding effort,” says John Piatt, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska. “Reproductive success of this species requires a high degree of cooperation by each mate as they switch duties.”

Common murres (Uria aalge) lay only one egg each breeding season. Parental roles aren’t determined by gender for the birds; mothers and fathers take turns watching over their chick and foraging for fish. When one parent returns with a fish for the chick, the couple preen each other and switch roles. This swapping ceremony typically happens three to four times a day.

But study coauthor Carolyn Walsh noticed that switches don’t always go smoothly. Video of 16 pairs of murres, documenting a total of 198 role swaps, showed that sometimes both birds appeared indecisive. Each…

Big dads carry weight among wandering albatrosses

wandering albatross
Wandering albatrosses are known for their coparenting skills. An albatross dad’s body mass may have weighty implications for other traits among these birds, new research suggests.

Dad bod is a big deal for albatrosses. Bigger male wandering albatrosses live longer and are more likely to breed successfully compared with lighter birds, while mass has no observable effect on female breeding or survival, researchers report May 3 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Climate change could shift the degree to which some seabirds pack on the pounds. It’s unclear how those shifts will play out in species like wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans), in which males…