How does eating plastic impact the natural feeding of seabirds?

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About This Project

Many animals, including humans, accidentally eat plastic, but we don't yet understand the impacts of it from either a health or a behavioral perspective. Here, I am studying the diets of seabirds where the amount of plastic in their stomachs is compared to more natural components that they feed on within marine food webs. This will help us better understand whether birds that eat a lot of plastic do so at the expense of more typical food items, shedding light on their behavioral ecology.

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What is the context of this research?

Plastic pollution has been found everywherewe have looked for it. Despite reports of wildlife eating plastic for over 50 years, little has been done to understand how it impacts animal populations. Are they eating plastic because we are competing with them for fish? It can be hard to link consumed plastics & wildlife health for ethical reasons, so here, I am use birds that died in fishing lines to learn about another important part if the puzzle: how eating plastics impact seabird diets. Diet impacts condition, health, and reproductive success of populations & gaining better insight in the role that plastics play on seabird feeding ecology is a much needed additional step for learning about the larger picture of plastics & their impacts on wildlife.

What is the significance of this project?

Plastic pollution is a major problem worldwide, occurring in all ecosystems, wildlife, and our own diets. Knowing more about the incidence & abundance of plastics in food webs can help us conserve seabird populations, 90% of which are in decline. While we still are unclear about the specific health impacts of consumed plastics, we know that many compounds in plastics are disruptive to the endocrine system, that is involved in hormone regulation & reproductive success. In this way, funding plastics trophic ecology research will help us to conserve threatened and endangered species & learn about the likely health impacts these contaminants can have on human populations.

What are the goals of the project?

The goals here are to compare the presence/absence, abundance, and types of plastics being consumed by seabirds collected from different locations while evaluating the overall condition (health) of those birds. As we work up deceased seabirds, we look at all of the major organ systems, including those associated with contaminant filtration (liver and spleen) and those that are involved in reproduction (gonads) & can link their condition and weight to the health of that animal. By comparing these metrics with the plastics data, we can better understand the links between plastic consumption and the health of wildlife that consume them.


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The birds used here are currently housed in freezers across country and we need to ship and store them locally. The supplies for diet assessments (dissecting tools, microscopes, storage containers) require maintenance and replacement, and I want to train multiple students in these techniques, requiring funding to compensate them for their time and purchase supplies for them to use. Some of these are durable supplies that can be used on future research projects.

Endorsed by

Kate's research will address some of the most critical questions and concerns we have relating to marine plastic contamination and successful breeding in seabirds.
I work with seabirds in south Florida and often find dead birds with no explanation as to what caused their mortality. Unfortunately, plastic debris of all sizes and shapes is quite common on any beach or water body. Several of these seabird species and shorebird species are state or federally threatened or in decline across their range. There is a lack of information on how these plastics and microplastics impact their diet, behavior, migration, and reproductive success.

Flag iconProject Timeline

This project was placed on hold in 2020 as students were asked to leave our campus because of COVID-19 concerns. This Spring & Summer, we are in a whole different situation & we will bring & store more samples here. We are already training students on the techniques & by June, I expect 30 birds to be assessed for plastics & food web interactions. More birds will be assessed over summer, lead by interns. Final analyses will be completed by the end of the year.

Apr 02, 2021

Project Launched

Jun 04, 2021

Complete first 30 bird assessments 

Jul 02, 2021

Finalize data assessments for first 30 birds

Sep 24, 2021

Complete second set of bird assessments

Dec 31, 2021

Finalize data assessments for all birds

Meet the Team

Kate L Sheehan
Kate L Sheehan
Assistant Professor


Frostburg State University
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Team Bio

My team is comprised of 3 undergraduate researchers.

Kate L Sheehan

Hi! I'm an ecologist that studies trophic interactions between hosts and symbionts with an emphasis on parasitic worms that infect birds as definitive hosts. I have assessed 87 avian species for general health, feeding interactions in local food webs, and parasitic infections.

I use techniques in community ecology to statistically differentiate between groups of hosts - I do this with parasite assemblage data. We have used parasite communities to link the feeding ecology of hosts and the local species assemblages of prey to define subspecies, sex, and age classes of bird hosts.

I also use landscape ecology to understand the impacts of human-induced alterations to ecosystems on the behaviors of wildlife.

Finally, I document the incidence of plastic consumption in the wildlife that I study. Sometimes the hosts themselves have eaten plastics, but often it is their prey that consumed it or were entangled in it. This has spurred a whole new area of research in our lab.

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  • 6%Funded
  • $200Total Donations
  • $33.33Average Donation
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