Zoop to poop: Recent GEMM Lab publication reveals high microparticle ingestion by zooplankton and gray whales

By Lisa Hildebrand, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Baleen whales face a multitude of threats on a daily basis. The exposure to some of these threats can be assessed visually. For example, the presence of propeller scars on a whale are indicative that the individual was struck by a boat. However, there are some threats that are not easily detected from visual assessments. One of these threats is the ingestion of microparticles (MPs), which include microplastics and other anthropogenic debris. While MP research has entered its second decade and documentation of MPs in the marine environment is common, we still lack empirical information on the rates of MP ingestion by baleen whales and their prey. Hence, one of the objectives of the Coastal Oregon Zooplankton Investigation (COZI; read more about it in a previous blog), which GEMM Lab PI Leigh Torres led, was to determine to what extent Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales and their nearshore zooplankton prey are impacted by MPs. The results of this work were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science and I am going to summarize them for you here today.

A number of studies have documented MP ingestion in baleen whales, including in humpback (Besseling et al., 2015), fin (Fossi et al., 2012, 2014, 2016, 2017), Bryde’s, and sei whales (Zantis et al., 2022). The effects of ingesting MPs on baleen whales are theorized to include blockage of internal organs, mechanical damage of the digestive tract, false feeling of satiation (full from eating), and potentially leaching of toxicants depending on the length of the digestive period (Donohue et al., 2019; Hudak & Sette 2019; Zhu et al., 2019; Novillo et al., 2020). Despite the fact that MPs have been documented in a number of baleen whale species, there is still a lack of knowledge regarding MP ingestion rates by baleen whales from empirical data, although modeled estimates have been derived for a few species (Zantis et al., 2022; Kahane-Rapport et al., 2022). Basically, we know whales eat MPs because it has been detected in their stomachs, but we do not know how much MPs they consume. The COZI team therefore aimed to quantify baleen whale MP consumption rates from empirically counted MP loads in zooplankton prey and to look at MP exposure of baleen whales from “zoop to poop” (Figure 1). 

Figure 1 Schematic depicting our “zoop to poop” approach. Taken from Torres et al., 2023.

In order to accomplish this aim, we used “zoop” and “poop” samples collected between 2017 to 2019 during the GEMM Lab’s long-term GRANITE (Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology) project. We analyzed MP loads in three prey zooplankton species found in nearshore Oregon waters (the amphipod Atylus tridens and the mysid shrimp Holmesimysis sculpta and Neomysis rayii), all of which are known PCFG gray whale prey (Hildebrand et al., 2021), as well as five fecal samples collected from four unique individual gray whales. While the field collection of these samples was led by the GEMM Lab, the processing and MP analysis was led by Dr. Susanne Brander and conducted by a number of undergraduate student workers. MP analysis is no easy feat as it involves many, many meticulous and time-intensive steps in order to get from a sample of gray whale prey or poop to a known number of MPs that the sample contained. The process involves (1) sorting and identifying the prey into the different species; (2) rinsing the individuals to ensure no external MPs are counted; (3) digesting the sample in potassium hydroxide (KOH) for 24-72 hours; (4) sieving and filtering the digested samples; (5) picking out suspected MPs from the filters and measuring them; (6) analyzing the suspected MPs to confirm chemical composition. On top of all of these steps, anyone working with the samples has to try and minimize potential MP contamination, which is not easy since MPs are practically everywhere, such as synthetic fibers from our clothes or microplastics that are floating around in the air. 

Figure 2 Microparticle (MP) loads and morphotypes by zooplankton species. (A) the number of MPs per 1 gram per species, with the dotted line representing the average MP level in controls. (B) the proportion of MP morphotypes found in each zooplankton species. (C) the proportion of Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy categories of MPs found in each zooplankton species. The sample size for each sample is denoted above all columns. Taken from Torres et al., 2023.

After many long years of lab work (COVID lab restrictions included), we are excited (and a little daunted) to share the results of this collaborative project with you. We detected MPs in all 26 zooplankton prey samples that we analyzed and found that the number of MPs in the three species were pretty similar, with an average of 4 MPs per gram of zooplankton (Figure 2). Over 50% of the 418 suspected MPs that we identified in the zooplankton samples were fibers. We also detected MPs in all five gray whale fecal samples that we analyzed. While we also detected fibers among the 37 suspected MPs pulled from the fecal samples, we found a higher proportion of larger MPs such as fragments and pellets in the “poop” samples, than we did in the “zoop” samples (Figure 3). We also tested some seawater samples as controls to see how the composition of MPs in seawater compared to that of zooplankton and gray whale feces. We found that seawater was dominated by fibers, similar to the zooplankton prey. This finding suggests that the larger MPs (e.g., fragments, pellets) that we found in gray whale feces must be coming from somewhere other than their prey and the ambient seawater. This led us to hypothesize that gray whales are likely exposed to MPs through two pathways, via (1) trophic transfer from their zooplankton prey and (2) indiscriminate consumption of ambient MPs in the benthos while foraging benthically (Figure 1). 

Figure 3 Microparticle (MP) loads and morphotypes found in each of the five gray whale fecal samples analyzed. (A)the number of MPs per gram of fecal sample, with the dotted line representing the average MP level in controls. (B) the proportion of MP morphotypes found in each fecal sample. (C) the proportion of Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy categories of MPs found in each fecal sample. The sample size for each sample is denoted above all columns. Taken from Torres et al., 2023.

Next we wanted to estimate the daily ingestion rates of MPs by gray whales. For this estimation, we used our known values of zooplankton MP ingestion (from our analyzed samples) and extrapolated them using daily energetic needs of gray whales (i.e., how many calories does the whale need each day). The only published values of daily gray whale caloric needs are for pregnant and lactating females (Villegas-Amtmann et al., 2015, 2017), which is why we were only able to estimate daily MP ingestion rates for these two demographic groups. The numbers we calculated were rather staggering (and led us to double-, triple-, and quadruple-check our math) as we estimate that if a pregnant gray whale only ate the mysid N. rayii in a day, she would consume 9.55 million MP per day. We made these estimates for all three prey species that we analyzed as well as a “composite preyscape” (an average of the three prey species) and you can see all of those results in Table 1.

Table 1 Estimates of the number of microparticles (MPs) that a pregnant and lactating female gray whale consumes per day generated through extrapolation of results from this study (Microparticles per individual zooplankton; first row) to their daily energetic needs by zooplankton prey species from Hildebrand et al., 2021. Taken from Torres et al., 2023.

These results are frightening. They still are to me even though I have spent months with this knowledge after having done a lot of the data analysis for this project. I think it is particularly frightening to think about the fact that MPs are not the only anthropogenic threat that gray whales (and really any organism in the ocean) are exposed to. The good news is that you can do something to help reduce this threat in the oceans. Below are just a few suggestions of what you can do to reduce MP pollution to the environment:

  1. A major source of pollution in the ocean comes from microfibers through our laundry (as you saw in our results). You can help stop this pathway by simply using a Cora Ball or installing a filter (such as this one) in your washing machine that captures microfleece & polyester fibers.
  2. Minimize your use of single-use plastics. There are so many ways to do so including reuseable water bottles, travel mugs for coffee or tea, fabric totes as shopping bags, carry a set of utensils for takeout food, beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap or sandwich bags.
  3. Use public transport when possible as another huge source of microplastics comes from tire treads! This solution also helps reduce your carbon footprint.


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