Meet Eurythenes plasticus, a newly identified amphipod found in one of the deepest places on Earth named after the plastic found to contaminate its gut. Though the coin-sized scavenger is new to science and lives in the remote ocean, its plastic contamination shows that it is not exempt from the impacts of human pollution on our planet.
“Finding a new species that we didn’t know was there before and finding plastic in it, just shows how widespread this is as a pollutant,” said Johanna Weston, a PhD student and first author of the study describing it, said. “We found one microfiber in a specimen from 6,900 meters (22,600 feet) and that microfiber was 60 percent similar to PET.”
PET is short for polyethylene terephthalate, a substance found in a variety of commonly used products, from water bottles to workout clothes, that do not naturally degrade in the environment. As it breaks down, PET gets smaller and smaller, eventually breaking down into microplastics that show up in an increasingly large proportion of marine animals around the world. Once such microplastics reach the deep-sea, they accumulate over time as there is nowhere else to go.
“The newly discovered species Eurythenes plasticus shows us how far-reaching the consequences of our inadequate handling of plastic waste truly is. There are species living in the deepest, most remote places on Earth which have already ingested plastic before they are even known about by humankind,” said Heike Vesper, Director of the Marine Programme at WWF Germany, in a statement.
Eurythenes a large group of large scavenging amphipod found in deep oceans around the world. Newcastle University researchers found E. plasticus during an exploratory dive in the Pacific Ocean’s Marianas Trench between Japan and the Philippines using baiting traps in 2014. Morphological land DNA analyses showed that the specimen was new to science and was so named for its most conspicuous feature, now described in the journal Zootaxa.
“To give it a name, we would normally look at something which is quite characteristic of that species because once that species is named and is now deposited in a museum, it is now part of the human catalog of species,” said Dr Alan Jamieson. “It’s there forevermore.”
The deep-sea amphipods are voracious, non-picky eaters, so it may be that they are more susceptible to ingesting microplastics. Because of the scarcity of food available in the deep sea, animals have adopted the ability to eat just about anything that makes its way to such depths. Plastics, however, have not been around long enough for those deep-sea animals to have evolved detection or avoidance strategies.
Harm doesn’t come solely from ingesting a piece of plastic, but also from associated chemicals. As Jamieson explains, there are many other contaminants in the sea known as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. Most are hydrophobic, which means that they don’t like water and do not bind to anything else in the ocean – but they love plastic. Pelagic plastics act as a magnet to POPs, collecting contaminants that eventually sink to the ocean floor along with their host. Deep-sea animals that eat the plastic become contaminated by the leached chemicals, which are known to cause reproduction harm.