Projects/science - world/may 26, 2020

Which marine mammal eats the most microplastics?

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About This Project

What is the context of this research?

As plastic use increases, contamination of environments with pieces of plastic (microplastics) is more common. Pieces from products like microbeads in cosmetics, lint from synthetic clothing, and breakdown of larger items like bottles make their way to the oceans, where they are eaten by animals like whales and sea lions. While plastics may seem harmless due to their widespread use, we are just beginning to understand the effects they have on animals and ecosystems. They can cause physical damage, can lodge in organs, transport other harmful pollutants or germs (like a sponge), or release toxic compounds. Identifying which animals are exposed and which organs microplastics or their additives are found in is needed to understand how they can impact marine mammals.

What is the significance of this project?

Earth has seen a dramatic decrease in wildlife populations over the last 50 years and is currently in the midst of its 6th mass extinction, thought to be primarily caused by human activity. This project tackles one of the world’s rapidly emerging concerns facing wildlife — the introduction of plastic pollution into the environment. Results will provide much-needed comparative data on which species of marine mammals are affected and in what tissues microplastics and their additives are found. Very little work has been done to determine the health risks posed by microplastics to marine mammals, and the data from this project will be used to inform design of a larger prospective research program for effective use of available samples and resources.

What are the goals of the project?

This project is a pilot study, which means its data will be used as preliminary information crucial for planning a larger and more robust study. With this project, we plan to use banked frozen samples collected at the Marine Mammal Center during strandings to:

1. Evaluate marine mammal tissues and fecal material from stranded animals for evidence of exposure or the presence of microplastic particles and additives.

2. Compare results from the different tissues and species to determine which samples are best to target in a larger planned study.

To achieve success, we would need to analyze 3 samples (2 tissues and 1 feces sample for microplastics and additives) from each of three individual animals of 3 different species, for a total of 27 samples.

Distribution of money

To get started, we need at least $4958. With additional funding we can complete analysis for more samples, animals, and species to build on our initial data!

$183 = one sample

$551 = one animal (3 samples)

$1652 = one species (3 animals)

$4958 = three species (our minimum goal!)


Sample shipping: To get frozen samples from stranding sites to our lab

Lab supplies/sample preparation: Includes specific chemicals and equipment needed to digest and process the samples so we can separate out microplastic particles or additives and properly analyze them (like centrifuge tubes, digestion/extraction chemicals, glass separation funnels, and filters).

Sample analysis: Calibration of Raman microscope (very important for really small particles!!), reagents needed for gas chromatography, and data analysis software.