Taste, not appearance, drives corals to eat plastics

Scientists have long known that marine animals mistakenly eat plastic debris because the tiny bits of floating plastic might look like prey.

But a new Duke University study of plastic ingestion by corals suggests there may be an additional reason for the potentially harmful behavior. Visual cues, such as a resemblance to prey, don't factor into the appeal, the researchers noted, because corals have no eyes.

The plastic just plain tastes good.

"Corals in our experiments ate all types of plastics but preferred unfouled microplastics by a threefold difference over microplastics covered in bacteria," said Austin S. Allen, a PhD student at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. "This suggests the plastic itself contains something that makes it tasty."

"When plastic comes from the factory, it has hundreds of chemical additives on it. Any one of these chemicals or a combination of them could be acting as a stimulant that makes plastic appealing to corals," said Alexander C. Seymour, a geographic information systems analyst at Duke's Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Center, who co-led the study with Allen.

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