If living creatures are what they eat, then many fish, birds and other creatures may well be part plastic. That’s one of many surprising lessons visitors took away from Science Sunday, held at the Notre Dame Linked Ecosystem Experimental Facility (ND-LEEF) in St. Patrick's County Park.
“Microplastics are found in all kinds of household products, from the microbeads in soaps and shampoos to the fibers that make fleece shirts and jackets,” explained Katie O’Reilly and Whitney Conard, doctoral students in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame.
“The particles from microplastics are so small that waste water treatment plants can’t filter them out. They can get washed into rivers, where they mix with insects and zooplankton and other foods that wild creatures eat. With our research, we want to learn what happens. Do the plastics accumulate in their stomachs or do they flush it out?”
To help kids see how plastics can infiltrate streams and rivers, O’Reilly and Conard had them dip colored bits of paper from an aquarium. Some were marked as plastics, others as zooplankton. Then, adults and kids moved to tubs filled with aerated water where sculpin fish are fed clams injected with a microplastic solution. Researchers will later compare these fish to sculpin that were kept in a lab and fed clams without microplastics.
“Science Sunday gives ND-LEEF a chance to share its fascinating research with the public,” said Brett Peters, ND-LEEF assistant director. “Our researchers are skilled at adapting their science message for all ages. They can explain it to kids, but also adults who want to learn more about the important environmental issues of the day.”
Children used nets to scoop invertebrates such as dragon fly larva from an ND-LEEF pond – and after a close look, returned them to the water unharmed. Elsewhere, a plastic sheet landscape sprayed with a garden hose showed how oil (soy sauce) and manure (chocolate sprinkles) can run off into waterways unless homeowners and farmers take preventive measures.
Peters estimates that this year’s turnout was nearly 200, a new Science Sunday record. The event was sponsored by Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative (ND-ECI). ND-ECI works across disciplines with a network of 40 researchers who pursue solutions to a variety of environmental problems.