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Plastic ingestion in giant tortoises: An example of a novel anthropogenic impact for Galapagos wildlife

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Galapagos tortoises, an endangered animal, are eating more plastic as human impacts on planet Earth continue to mount. Scientists assess and discuss the dangers of plastic pollution to these reptiles.

Abstract: The human population of Galapagos has rapidly increased in the last decades accelerating the anthropogenic pressures on the archipelago’s natural resources. The growing human footprint, including inadequate management of garbage, may lead to conservation conflicts. Here, we assessed the ingestion of debris by Western Santa Cruz giant tortoises (Chelonoidis porteri) within human-modified and protected areas. Additionally, we characterized environmental debris and quantified tortoise abundance together with tortoise fecal samples. We processed a total of 6629 fecal samples along a gradient of anthropogenic disturbance based on human debris presence. We found 590 pieces of debris in samples within human-modified areas (mean of 3.97 items/kg of feces) and only two pieces in the protected area (mean of 0.08 items/kg of feces). Plastic waste was the predominant category in feces within the anthropic area (86.3%; n = 511), followed by cloth, metal, paper, synthetic rubber, construction materials, and glass. On average, the proportion of plastic was higher in feces (84%) than it was in environmental debris (67%), denoting that plastics are more readily ingested than other types of debris. We also found that green, white, and light blue plastics were consumed more often than their prevalence in the environment, suggesting color discrimination. Tortoise abundance was higher in the protected area when compared to the human-modified area; however, recapture rates were higher in anthropized landscapes which increases tortoise exposure to plastics and other human associated threats. Our results indicate that plastics are frequently consumed by tortoises in the polluted anthropic areas of western Santa Cruz, but scarce in protected areas. More research is needed to understand the negative impacts associated with plastics for Galapagos terrestrial species. We encourage local stakeholders to implement current policies limiting expansion of urban areas, plastic use, and improving waste management systems to minimize threats to human and animal health.

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