Poisoned by plastics? Turtle study seeks answers - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

Accessibility links

USC News

Poisoned by plastics? Turtle study seeks answers

15 Oct 2020

A world-first USC study will examine if toxic chemicals from ingested microplastics could be harming Australia’s marine turtles.

USC PhD candidate Caitlin Smith’s research will build on previous studies that have confirmed that about half of the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastics.

“We know that marine turtles are dying from ingesting plastic particles,” Ms Smith said. “However this is the first study to explore the toxicity of these particles and the health risks to turtles from chemical and heavy metal exposure.”

The research will quantify the amount of microplastic found in the gastrointestinal tracts of turtles and use biomonitoring tools to calculate the oxidative stress, which can lead to cell and tissue damage from chemical exposure.

“While plastic can cause blockages in turtle’s intestines and even pierce the intestinal wall causing septicaemia, there may be other factors contributing to deaths,” Ms Smith said.

“Along with conducting necropsies on dead turtles to determine what they have ingested, we will gather blood and tissue samples from live turtles in the field to provide a wider picture of their health.

“The study will look at the correlation between the health of individual turtles to their exposure to debris ingestion and answer the question of whether poor health is due to the physical presence of debris or its associated toxicity.”

Ms Smith, a Marine Species Conservation Officer with the World Wide Fund for Nature - Australia (WWF-Aus), has relocated from Canberra to USC’s Fraser Coast campus to conduct her PhD research under the supervision of Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology Dr Kathy Townsend.

A recent study by Dr Townsend, a renowned expert in plastic ingestion in marine turtles, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) found that a turtle had a 22 percent chance of dying if it ate just one piece of plastic.

Ms Smith’s study will focus on populations of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) found in Queensland waters off Heron Island, Lady Elliot Island and Stradbroke Island, and in Moreton Bay and Gladstone Harbour.

“This will allow us to compare the health of turtles from more pristine areas with others where there are environmental pollutants originating from human activity and high levels of chemical and heavy metal contamination from industrial run-off,” Ms Smith said.

“These chemical and heavy metal contaminants have the ability to bind to biofilm that often coats plastics floating in the ocean, increasing the risk of toxic effects once ingested.”

The research project is funded by USC and through a Destination Australia Scholarship from the Federal Government.

Ms Smith is one of three successful Destination Australia Scholarship students to begin PhD research at USC’s Fraser Coast campus through the new program, which is aimed at attracting more students – both domestic and international – to study in regional locations.

Related programs

Related articles

Graduates adapt new careers to deal with COVID-19 changes
19 Oct

Two recent USC graduates who are helping to stage the Fraser Coast’s latest marketing campaigns and events decided to get creative when COVID-19 restrictions changed their new roles almost overnight

USC Chancellor's Medallist Myles Kreis
Fraser Coast graduate gains Chancellor’s Medal
8 Oct

Completing international internships, gaining Australia’s most prestigious global study scholarship and taking on a host of leadership roles were some of the unexpected benefits of a remarkable education journey for USC Fraser Coast graduate Myles Kreis.

Jess designs a career that’s dedicated to dogs
21 Sep

Architectural designer Jess Johnson had a different career switch in mind when she decided to study Animal Ecology at USC Fraser Coast– until she met a koala-detection dog named Bear and his other canine companions

Contact the USC media team

Name Position Email Phone
Terry Walsh Manager, Media and Messaging twalsh@usc.edu.au +61 7 5430 1160
Janelle Kirkland Media Relations Coordinator jkirklan@usc.edu.au +61 7 5459 4553
Clare McKay Media Relations Officer (Regional) cmckay@usc.edu.au +61 7 5456 5669

Search results for

Recent news