grey whales

OSU scientists find humanity's debris in Oregon plankton

Originally published in the Oregon Stater Magazine, Winter 2022 issue
By Nancy Steinberg
Photo courtesy Oregon State University

The concept is so well-established that it’s almost cliché: The most important thing humans know about ecosystems is that everything in them is connected. Case in point: Gray whales in Oregon’s ocean eat small animals classified as zooplankton. Zooplankton often eat tiny microplastics or other debris from the human environment.

Ergo, that wayward plastic bag blowing down the beach, or those tiny bits of thread shed by your clothes in the wash, can eventually end up in a whale.

Or maybe in you.

While the cogs in an ecosystem’s machinery are connected, scientists who study these things often are not, instead operating in separate disciplinary silos. Effective study of such interconnected problems requires egoless ecosystems of interconnected scientists.

Just such an ecosystem has emerged at Oregon State, where a partnership of four extraordinary early-career scientists from four different academic homes has developed a project to investigate connections between human-made debris, zooplankton and whales.

How you can reduce microdebris in the environment

The microplastics and other foreign particles that Susanne Brander’s lab is finding in Oregon zooplankton guts are worrisome and widespread. Microplastics have been found from the deep oceans to Antarctic ice, drifting in the air and even in human organs. While a global and corporate commitment to reducing the use of plastics is central to solving this problem, there are steps each of us can take to make a difference.

  1. Minimize your reliance on single-use plastics, meant to be thrown away after only one use. Many microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastic items, so using fewer of those items can help. Reusable water bottles and shopping bags are no-brainers at this point. Want to go further? Carry a set of utensils with you for takeout food, and try reusable beeswax wraps rather than plastic wrap or sandwich bags at home.
  2. One of the biggest sources of microparticles is fibers from synthetic clothing. While it may be difficult to eliminate microfleece or polyester from your wardrobe, you could install a filter on your washing machine that captures these fibers.
  3. Another huge source of microplastics is the wear of tire treads. Minimize driving by taking public transportation, which has the added benefit of reducing your carbon footprint.

Termed COZI, for Coastal Oregon Zooplankton Investigation, the effort started in the whale corner of the food web. Associate Professor Leigh Torres of the Marine Mammal Institute in the College of Agricultural Sciences was studying the small subset of local gray whales that do not migrate to the Arctic to feed but stay in Northwest waters — the so-called Pacific Coast Feeding Group.

Why do they stay? Is the menu better here than there? She and her students began collecting zooplankton near actively feeding whales to see what they were eating.

“I had a lot of questions,” Torres recalled. “Do these predators prioritize one type of prey over another? What is the variation in caloric value of what they’re eating? The more we know about their food choices, the closer we get to understanding why animals show up where they do.”

Torres freely admits she is not a zooplankton expert. Luckily, she knew two at Oregon State, each with complementary expertise that could help answer her questions. First was invertebrate ecologist Sarah Henkel of the Department of Integrative Biology, whose lab is near Torres’ at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Henkel and a student began identifying species of zooplankton collected by the Torres lab at whale feeding locations. They had five years of data to work with.

“The local zooplankton communities didn’t show any differences between sites — there was no spatial pattern,” Henkel notes. “So now we’re looking to see if we can relate the communities to larger oceanographic or climate factors over time,” like climate- related ocean warming.

Torres had already observed differences in whale condition over the course of years — she has developed a method that uses drone photography to essentially determine their body mass index (BMI) — and those differences seem tied to climate variability. Henkel said it seems likely that these results mean that climate variability is impacting the whales’ zooplankton prey, a correlation that has been observed elsewhere in the ocean off Oregon.

While Henkel and her students described which zooplankton species were present, they also wanted to know about the nutritional value of the whales’ meals. Enter Kim Bernard, also a zooplankton expert and an oceanographer in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. Bernard’s usual field sites are polar — she spent the six months of austral winter at a research station in the Antarctic to study krill a few years ago — but she was curious about the zooplankton closer to home. She brought to the project a wealth of knowledge about collecting zooplankton, helping Torres rig sampling equipment in her small boat. She also knew how to determine caloric content of the zooplankton by using an instrument called a bomb calorimeter, which determines the energy available in an item by burning it under pressure in a highly controlled environment.

Torres and her graduate student, Lisa Hildebrand, M.S. ’21, identified six species of zooplankton in the prey samples they collected near feeding whales. Bernard’s calorimeter data revealed that the most nutritious item on the menu, which might be a factor in keeping those whales from migrating all the way to the Arctic, is Dungeness crab larvae. Uncountable zillions of the tiny proto-crabs swarm in Oregon’s coastal waters in the spring and early summer. Many end up as food for whales.

The final piece of this ecological puzzle clicked because Torres, Bernard and Henkel were curious about microplastics and other debris in the zooplankton. Just as this question loomed large, along came the ideal expert: ecotoxicologist Susanne Brander, from OSU’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Microplastics and other tiny debris have been found in marine species from salmon to mussels, but would they be found in Oregon zooplankton? Answering such a question is painstaking work, involving liquefying each tiny critter and examining what is left behind, much of which is of human origin — tiny pieces of plastic, fibers from clothes. Each particle is then analyzed to reveal its source material.

Much caution is required to keep the samples from being contaminated: In Brander’s lab, the lab coats are a cheerful shade of tangerine (the closest they could get to Beaver orange) to help investigators determine whether the particles they find were shed from their own lab clothes, rather than ingested in the environment.

So far, every zooplankton sample Brander and her students have examined has contained human-produced debris of some kind, including microplastics from a variety of sources and tiny cellulose fibers from woven fabrics. From a fraction of a millimeter to several millimeters in length, the foreign particles are often huge in comparison to the size of the tiny organisms that have ingested them.

“Imagine a six-foot-tall person with two feet of rope coiled in their stomach,” Brander said.

What are the implications of this? “If you have a piece of debris in your stomach, that’s going to mean less room for food,” Brander explained. “It also may mean there’s a false sense of satiation, so that animal is less likely to go after food.”

The investigators:
The four researchers that formed the Coastal Oregon Zooplankton Investigation are, from left to right, Kim Bernard, zooplankton expert, College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences; Leigh Torres, whale expert, OSU Marine Mammal Institute; Sarah Henkel, invertebrate ecologist, College of Science, and Susanne Brander, ecotoxicologist, College of Agricultural Sciences.
(Photos by Mark Farley)

  See more feature stories