Shocking research has discovered ants wrapped in plastic for the first time.
Researchers documented the insects as victims of human pollution on the Spanish island of La Palma.
Armand Rausell-Moreno of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid noticed the ants entangled in plastic fiber in 2022 while on an internship.
He worked with ant expert J. Manuel Vidal-Cordero and Álvaro Luna, a professor at the European University of Madrid, to investigate the disturbing find.
Their study, published in the journal Ecological Entomology, describes the specimens as found entangled near hiking trails and roads, which suggests it likely that this type of pollution is linked to human activity.
The authors believe this could be the first time insects, or by extension other terrestrial invertebrates, have been detected entangled on plastic.
Álvaro Luna explains: “The story began by chance. One of the authors, Armand Rausell-Moreno, was doing an internship on the island of La Palma, and chose ants as the species model for his project.
“He collected ants around the island and while during preliminary examination of the individuals noticed some synthetic material entangled around the ants.
“Later, J. Manuel Vidal observed them with more precise optical material for their identification at the species level.
“Given our friendship, while chatting informally they told me about their observations, as they know that I’m involved in projects on the impact of plastics on nature.
“Immediately we knew that the story could be interesting since I usually read many scientific articles about plastic pollution and had not found anything published about this.
“As a last step, we sent the samples to one laboratory with experience in plastic fibers analyses, and they used a previously published protocol to confirm the synthetic origin of the fibers entangled in our ants.
“We tried to think on possible steps that could have brought plastic to the samples during data collection and sample processing.
“My two colleagues agreed that due to their working protocols, the plastic had not accidentally fallen into the samples. Moreover, the ants identified were previously dead in ethanol; the plastic couldn’t have gotten so entangled around their body without the help of the animal’s movement.
“To the best of our knowledge, this must be the first or one of the first times in which it has been detected in the field that insects or by extension other terrestrial invertebrates can become entangled on plastic.
“There are studies – most in laboratory conditions – that have shown ingestion of microplastic by earthworms and springtails; these studies also explain possible impacts for these organisms and how they can contribute to transport microplastics to different soil horizons.
“On the other hand, I remember other studies that show how the spider Macrothele calpeiana use plastic as material for their funnels and shelters, and how the bees can use synthetic material for their nests.
“Recently, a paper about how ants transport plastic in laboratory conditions was published. At the level of soil structure and functioning and insects there is not much more to date, and even less with data from the field, without experiments in a laboratory.
“To be honest, I believe that neither we nor anyone to date has a real estimate of the extent to which this problem is occurring, and whether it is something widespread and serious or not.
“If I may speculate, I believe that a problem of entanglement as widespread as in marine ecosystems (cetaceans, birds, turtles) should not be occurring at the level of entanglements in insects, but there is no data that can confirm or reject any hypothesis.
“In any case, I’m sure that plastics are interacting with insects and invertebrates in general in many ways not well studied to the date.
“I think that the smaller size of the insects will have influenced fewer people in their daily lives to see with their own eyes and take photographs of impacts related to plastics, so if it is occurring it has gone more unnoticed.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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