Is plastic ingestion in birds as toxic as we think? Insights from a plastic feeding experiment

Lauren Roman, Linda Lowenstine, Laura Maeve Parsley, Chris Wilcox, Britta Denise Hardesty, Kirsten Gilardi, Mark Hindell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Plastic pollution is a modern tragedy of the commons, with hundreds of species affected by society's waste. Birds in particular mistake plastic for prey, and millions of wild birds carry small plastic loads in their stomach and are exposed to potential toxicological effects. It is currently unknown how severely the toxicological and endocrine disrupting chemicals in plastic affect avian development, reproduction and endocrine function. To address this question, we conducted multi-generational plastic feeding experiments to test the toxicological consequences of plastic ingestion at environmentally relevant loads in Japanese quail, Coturnix japonica, investigating parental and two filial generations. Contrary to expectations, we found no evidence of lasting toxicological effects on mortality, adult body weight, organ histology, hormone levels, fertility, hatch rates and eggshell strength in birds experimentally fed plastic. However, we found plastic ingestion causes higher frequencies of male reproductive cysts and minor delays in chick growth and sexual maturity, though without affecting ultimate survival or reproductive output. We report that although plastic ingestion causes detectable endocrine effects in our model species, our lack of finding mortality, morbidity and adverse reproductive outcomes may challenge the common hypothesis of severe toxicological harm and population-level effects when environmentally relevant loads of plastic are ingested.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)660-667
Number of pages8
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - May 15 2019


  • Endocrine disruption
  • Japanese quail
  • Marine debris
  • Toxicology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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