Plastic Bags May Smell Like Food To Hungry Sea Turtles, Study Finds

by : Lucy Connolly on : 22 Mar 2020 18:08
Plastic Bags May Smell Like Food To Hungry Sea Turtles, Study FindsPA Images

Scientists have discovered that plastic bags might smell like food to sea turtles because of the bacteria and algae that accumulate on them.

In a new study published earlier this month, researchers found captive sea turtles responded almost identically when presented with food and with a plastic bag that had been soaked in water.


They also found the turtles would keep their noses out of the water three times longer to smell the plastic bags compared to the other control smells.

sea turtlePA Images

It’s long been known that plastic is having a devastating impact on the sea turtle population, with research suggesting 52% of the world’s turtles have eaten plastic waste.

However, while this was previously believed to be simply because floating plastic bags can look like a lot of jellyfish, algae, or other species a sea turtle would usually eat, this new research suggests smell also plays an important role.


The study, published in the journal Current Biology, suggests sea turtles could actually be ‘proactively seeking out plastics because of the smell’, according to Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program.

Mallos, who wasn’t involved in the study, described its findings as ‘very concerning’ as it provides alarming new information about why turtles eat plastic, as per CNN.

plastic bag seaWikimedia

Matthew Savoca, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and co-author of the study, agrees, saying this research proves ‘there are really complex evolutionary mechanisms that govern how animals are finding food’.


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He theorised that sea turtles have evolved to pursue certain smells that signal food, and therefore are drawn to the smell of the algae and bacteria when they gather on plastic in the ocean.

The researcher explained:

The ocean is not this large grocery store where there’s food everywhere, so these animals have to become hyper-specialised to survive.

sea turtlePA Images

While plastic pollution in the ocean is a concern for other species as well as sea turtles, Mallos says it’s particularly concerning for the turtles because nearly all of the seven species of the reptile are endangered.

Not only that, but three of the seven existing species are critically endangered, meaning they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

Although we can do our bit to reduce plastic pollution by recycling and reducing single-use items, this isn’t enough to save the sea turtles. Instead, our governments need to step up and take responsibility to tackle this pollution problem.

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Lucy Connolly

A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).

Topics: Animals, Environment, Plastic, Research, Science, Turtles


The University of Queensland and 2 others
  1. The University of Queensland

    World’s turtles face plastic deluge danger

  2. Current Biology

    Odors from marine plastic debris elicit foraging behavior in sea turtles

  3. CNN

    Plastic bags may smell like food to hungry sea turtles, a new study says