Patterns, dynamics and consequences of microplastic ingestion by the temperate coral, Astrangia poculata

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Published in: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2019.


Microplastics (less than 5 mm) are a recognized threat to aquatic food webs because they are ingested at multiple trophic levels and may bioaccumulate. In urban coastal environments, high densities of microplastics may disrupt nutritional intake. However, behavioural dynamics and consequences of microparticle ingestion are still poorly understood. As filter or suspension feeders, benthic marine invertebrates are vulnerable to microplastic ingestion. We explored microplastic ingestion by the temperate coral Astrangia poculata. We detected an average of over 100 microplastic particles per polyp in wild-captured colonies from Rhode Island. In the laboratory, corals were fed microbeads to characterize ingestion preference and retention of microplastics and consequences on feeding behaviour. Corals were fed biofilmed microplastics to test whether plastics serve as vectors for microbes. Ingested microplastics were apparent within the mesenterial tissues of the gastrovascular cavity. Corals preferred microplastic beads and declined subsequent offerings of brine shrimp eggs of the same diameter, suggesting that microplastic ingestion can inhibit food intake. The corals co-ingested Escherichia coli cells with microbeads. These findings detail specific mechanisms by which microplastics threaten corals, but also hint that the coral A. poculata, which has a large coastal range, may serve as a useful bioindicator and monitoring tool for microplastic pollution.