CAIRNS, Australia, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Researchers studying the Great Barrier Reef have found that corals there don't discriminate between real prey like plankton and faux food like microplastics.
This undiscerning approach to feeding, researchers say, makes such corals especially vulnerable to pollution. The coral's stomach can potentially fill with the indigestible plastics and perish.
Researchers confirmed the corals propensity for consuming plastic particles after putting coral samples in contaminated water.
"Corals get energy from photosynthesis by symbiotic algae living within their tissues, but they also feed on a variety of other food including zooplankton, sediment and other microscopic organisms that live in seawater," lead study author Nora Hall, a researcher at James Cook University Masters in Australia, explained in a press release.
"We found that the corals ate plastic at rates only slightly lower than their normal rate of feeding on marine plankton," Hall added.
When scientists cut open the plastic-eating coral to investigate, they found plastic particles entangled in digestive tissue. The findings suggest excessive plastic pollution could clog up the insides of coral species and prevent the organisms from digesting real food.
"Marine plastic pollution is a global problem and microplastics can have negative effects on the health of marine organisms," said Dr. Mia Hoogenboom, lead researcher at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
Hoogenboom, Hall and their colleagues are now looking to understand how plastics affect coral physiology. They are also trying to find out if other animals are consuming microplastics.
"We are also investigating whether fish on coral reefs eat plastics, and whether plastic consumption influences fish growth and survival." Hoogenboom said.
Research in the Great Lakes has shown that the plastic microbeads found in face wash and toothpaste eventually bypass water treatment plants and find their way into the stomachs of small fish. Scientists suggest the tiny plastic balls could easily make their way up the food chain and into the intestines of fish-eating humans.
The new study on plastic-eating corals was published online this month in the journal Marine Biology.