Galapagos tortoises eat plastic waste, especially in areas adjacent to human habitations, a new study shows. As scientists explained, this is dangerous because these reptiles digest food very slowly. This extends the time that foreign bodies stay in their bodies.
elephant turtles (Chelonoidis niger) are the largest turtles in the world – adult individuals can weigh over 400 kilograms. These giant inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific have been on the endangered species list for years. As a study published in the journal “Environmental Pollution” shows, these reptiles are harmed not only by intentional actions, but also by human oversights.
Serious health consequences
An international team of scientists examined over 6,600 faecal samples taken from turtles of the subspecies Chelonoidis nigra porteri, found only on Santa Cruz Island – it is the most densely populated corner of the archipelago. More than 5,500 of them were collected in areas adjacent to human settlements – near agricultural areas, roads or houses – and the rest came from the Galapagos National Park. Researchers wanted to check how the proximity of humans influenced the condition of large reptiles.
A total of 590 fragments of anthropogenic origin were found in feces collected in human-occupied areas. More than 86 percent of the garbage was plastic, with smaller amounts of textiles, metal shrapnel, paper, glass and building materials. In some cases, several wastes were found in one sample. For comparison, only two pieces of waste were found in all feces collected in the national park.
As the study’s lead author, Karina Ramon-Gomez of the Charles Darwin Foundation in Santa Cruz, explained, turtles may confuse plastics with food. This is particularly dangerous due to the very slow digestive processes of these reptiles – they may need up to 28 days to digest a meal.
– We are worried about how the swallowed garbage will affect their health – she explained. – They can cause numerous negative effects, including injuries, intestinal obstruction and even hormonal changes caused by chemical components found in the waste.
Protection and education
The researchers stressed that this is the first study to quantify the plastic consumption of this valuable, recognizable species. The results show how important a role protected areas play in the survival of animals – almost no plastic was found in the samples found in the national park.
– In 2015, laws banning the sale and use of many single-use plastic items, including straws and plastic bags, came into force in the Galapagos Islands, which has not yet been implemented on the mainland. However, the amount of single-use plastic in the archipelago remains very high, said co-author of the analysis, Ainoa Nieto Claudin from the zoo in Saint Louis, USA.
The Charles Darwin Foundation explained that educational campaigns play a key role in protecting the Galapagos ecosystem. The threat that plastic waste poses to animals can be reduced by developing the ecological awareness of residents and tourists and encouraging them to behave more sustainably towards nature.
Charles Darwin Foundation
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