Dozens of marine species are inhabiting garbage that is floating in the middle of the ocean. What makes this discovery even more unusual is that the sea life, including anemones, worms, and crustaceans, typically stay near coastal areas. A study about the phenomenon was recently published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Sea-ing is Believing
Marine ecologist Linsey Haram of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said that finding so many coastal species on a small sample was “shocking.” That is because many have believed the high seas is an area in which coastal species would never inhabit.
Researchers analyzed more than 100 pieces of debris from what is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is located between Hawaii and California. The trash pile was created by currents and the accumulation of floating debris. Believe It or Not!, scientists found coastal species present on 70 percent of the pieces of garbage!
— WCMU Public Radio (@WCMUNews) April 17, 2023
While coastal species have been known to hitch a ride on ships and floating debris, scientists were unaware that they could survive for a prolonged period in the middle of the ocean or create new populaces there. That’s because ocean and coastal areas differ when it comes to factors such as temperature, salinity, and nutrients.
Rethinking Coastal Life
The 2011 tsunami in Japan upended scientific notions about coastal life’s survivability in a different environment. After the tsunami, items from the East Asian country appeared in areas like Hawaii several years later with coastal species intact.
With the assistance of the nonprofit group The Ocean Cleanup, Haram and her team collected a variety of items, including buckets, bottles, crates, and ropes. At the lab, they determined that most marine invertebrate specimens living on the garbage were from coastal areas. The trash was also home to sea life that commonly lives in the open ocean. The number and diversity of creatures was unexpected. Plus, some were procreating on their plastic homes, including a Japanese anemone.
Also notable is that coastal species and open-ocean sea life were cohabiting on the same piece of garbage. How they interact is unclear, but they likely challenge one another for space and food. Scientists also observed coastal anemones eating an ocean-dwelling purple snail.
According to Sabine Rech, a marine biologist from the Universidad Católica del Norte in Chile, it shows that coastal life surviving a long duration at sea is more than just a one-off event. “With the latest research, we see that it’s just something that is normal now, that is happening all the time,” she noted. “Coastal species are traveling on a regular basis, all the time, away from their habitat.”
The problem is that certain species may become invasive when traveling to new homes. The ability of coastal species to anchor themselves to man-made objects is revolutionary, fascinating, and “a bit scary,” said Rech, who has studied life on ocean garbage in the South Pacific. She and her team have not found the same diverse number of coastal creatures in the items they have analyzed from the South Pacific.
Ripley’s Aquariums and Marine Conservation
Here at Ripley’s, we understand the importance of protecting the habitats of marine life. That’s why all of Ripley’s Aquariums are connected by Ripley’s Marine Science Research Center, a state-of-the-art quarantine, rescue, and research facility that supports Ripley’s conservation efforts and advancements in the sustainability of species. Alongside research and rescue efforts, Ripley’s Aquariums aims to educate our guests on how they can take action to protect the world around us.
The Aquariums also donate to SANCCOB, a registered nonprofit whose primary objective is to reverse the decline of seabird populations through the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of ill, injured, abandoned, or oiled seabirds — especially the endangered African penguin.
There is still so much left to explore in the ocean and its up to all of us to make sure they are thriving for generations to come.
By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com