Around the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, rhodoliths made up of red coral algae provide ecological niches for a wide variety of organisms. A team of researchers from the Friedrich-Alexander-UniversitÃ¤t Erlangen-NÃ¼rnberg (FAU), the University of Bayreuth and the Senckenberg Research Institute in Wilhelmshaven recently discovered a large amount of microplastics in this ecosystem.
Ecosystem engineers create habitat for many species
The variety of organisms found in the Arctic Ocean is often underestimated. In some areas, marine life is even as diverse as that found on coral reefs. One reason for this diversity is rhodoliths, which are nodules made up of red coralline algae that are slightly larger than a fist. There are a large number of ecological niches on and between these rhodoliths and the Rhodoliths of Svalbard have a peculiarity because they are hollow.
Indeed, a certain type of mollusk digs cavities in the limestone skeletons of rhodoliths to hide from predators. âAt one point, the mollusks die off and the hollow nodule offers a great place to hide for other organisms due to its hard calcareous shell,â explains Dr Sebastian Teichert of the FAU Paleoenvironmental Research Chair. “We can call rhodoliths and mollusks ‘ecosystem engineers’ because they create habitat for other organisms.”
Microplastics found in every mollusk
The researchers examined mollusks from various rhodoliths using spectroscopy and found microplastics in each mollusk they examined. “Because mollusks filter water when they feed and because much of the Arctic is already contaminated with microplastics, we expected to find particles of microplastics, but not in this amount and variety.” , explains Ines Pyko from the chair of paleontology at the FAU. “We have found as many as 184 particles in some mollusks made up of eight different types of plastic.”
Impact on arctic ecosystem unknown
The impact of microplastics on the ecosystem is still unknown. Laboratory studies have already shown that microplastics can cause inflammation of mollusc tissue. If the mollusks could no longer fulfill their function of ecosystem engineers because of this contamination, this would also have consequences for all the organisms protected by the hollow rhodoliths. In addition to climate change, this poses another threat to this very diverse Arctic ecosystem.
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