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

Sci Total Environ. 2019 May 15;665:660-667. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.02.184. Epub 2019 Feb 13.


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.

Keywords: Endocrine disruption; Japanese quail; Marine debris; Toxicology.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Coturnix / physiology*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Eating*
  • Endocrine Disruptors / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Plastics / adverse effects*
  • Sex Factors


  • Endocrine Disruptors
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Plastics