Microplastics induce changes in mussel traits and behaviors
Chemical leachates from plastics used in fishing, shipping and manufacturing affect habitat-forming abilities of mussels
October 27, 2020
For Immediate Release
Contact: Heidi Swanson, (202) 833-8773 ext. 211, gro.asenull@idieh When microplastics release chemicals in seawater, mussels may react by subduing or ramping up traits and behaviors that influence their ability to form mussel beds, says a paper recently published in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecological Applications.
The authors staked out mussel collection sites on the coasts of France and South Africa, and painstakingly counted microplastic particles on the sand when waters receded during low tide. They found high densities of microplastics, reporting as many as 950 microplastic particles per square meter at some sites.
“These densities may sound high, but unfortunately they are not infrequent,” said Laurent Seuront, the paper’s lead author and an ecologist and oceanographer at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. “I found accumulation zones on some beaches of the eastern English Channel where the microplastic pellets alone can reach over 5000 pellets per meter square.”
Microplastic debris accumulates in these areas when ocean currents and rivers deposit raw polypropylene pellets and degraded bits of larger plastic products on shorelines. Fishing, manufacturing and transport are major sources of microplastic contamination in coastal waters.
After bringing the mussels back to the lab and acclimating them to plastic-free conditions, the team exposed the mussels to plastic-laced seawater and observed their responses. Two species of mussels responded with a “resilience” strategy, becoming more active and moving around significantly more in leachate seawater than in control seawater. The other two species, however, took a “resistance” strategy – they began producing more of the grippy filaments, known as byssal threads, that help them hang on to solid surfaces.
Mussels are ecosystem engineers whose dense, bumpy beds form habitat for other species and essentially become part of the landscape itself. Changes in motility and grip, like those that Seuront and his colleagues observed, could therefore influence other communities and ecosystems in important ways.
The United Nations has proclaimed 2021–2030 as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, rallying ocean stakeholders against the declining health of “our planet’s largest life-support system.” But even as global awareness of pollution and other ocean-related challenges continue to grow, the long-term impacts of emerging hazards on many key marine species and systems remain poorly understood.
While trait-strengthening behaviors can help mussels sustain plastic pollution in the short term, Seuront warns that the energy costs of these types of changes may not be sustainable in the long-term. In ecosystems where pollution-affected species serve a basic structural role, the growing prevalence of microplastic contamination could therefore shake the foundation of the system.
Seuront, Laurent et al. 2020. “Microplastic leachates induce species‐specific trait strengthening in intertidal mussels.” doi.org/10.1002/eap.2222
Laurent Seuront1,2,3, Katy R. Nicastro3,4, Christopher D. McQuaid3, Gerardo I. Zardic3
1Univ. Lille, CNRS, Univ. Littoral Côte d’Opale, Laboratoire d’Océanologie et de Géosciences, Lille, France; 2Department of Marine Resource and Energy, Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan; 3Department of Zoology and Entomology, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa; 4CCMAR–Centro de Ciencias do Mar, CIMAR Laboratório Associado, Universidade do Algarve, Campus de Gambelas, Faro, Portugal
Laurent Seuront (email@example.com)
The Ecological Society of America, founded in 1915, is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge, committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 9,000 member Society publishes five journals and a membership bulletin and broadly shares ecological information through policy, media outreach, and education initiatives. The Society’s Annual Meeting attracts 4,000 attendees and features the most recent advances in ecological science. Visit the ESA website at https://www.esa.org.