Research ArticleMarine Ecology

From the surface to the seafloor: How giant larvaceans transport microplastics into the deep sea

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Science Advances  16 Aug 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 8, e1700715
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700715

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Plastic waste is a pervasive feature of marine environments, yet little is empirically known about the biological and physical processes that transport plastics through marine ecosystems. To address this need, we conducted in situ feeding studies of microplastic particles (10 to 600 μm in diameter) with the giant larvacean Bathochordaeus stygius. Larvaceans are abundant components of global zooplankton assemblages, regularly build mucus “houses” to filter particulate matter from the surrounding water, and later abandon these structures when clogged. By conducting in situ feeding experiments with remotely operated vehicles, we show that giant larvaceans are able to filter a range of microplastic particles from the water column, ingest, and then package microplastics into their fecal pellets. Microplastics also readily affix to their houses, which have been shown to sink quickly to the seafloor and deliver pulses of carbon to benthic ecosystems. Thus, giant larvaceans can contribute to the vertical flux of microplastics through the rapid sinking of fecal pellets and discarded houses. Larvaceans, and potentially other abundant pelagic filter feeders, may thus comprise a novel biological transport mechanism delivering microplastics from surface waters, through the water column, and to the seafloor. Our findings necessitate the development of tools and sampling methodologies to quantify concentrations and identify environmental microplastics throughout the water column.

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