Behind every paper that’s published, there’s a story. Whether it’s the field truck breaking down 15 km from camp, or a blind (hide for my European readers) blowing over (with or without an occupant inside), these are some of the things that don’t make it into papers.
I like to think of this blog as a place where I can wax poetical (or not) about whatever is on my mind, freed from the confines of the relatively strict format of an academic paper. This is the tale of a project that did end up published as a paper, and some of the bumps along the way. Consider this a sort of “Behind the Science” exposé. But for me, it’s also almost like a confessional – not because I think the science is bad, or we did anything wrong in the study, but, well, you’ll see.
Humans love plastic. That ubiquitous petrochemical product that fuelled the post-war boom has made goods cheaper, and more disposable. Everything from toy cars to razors, dishes to automobiles now has a significant plastic component. What I study is what happens to some of the plastic after we throw it away. A major chunk of it ends up on the ocean where it’s ingested by marine birds, turtles, whales, fish, even zooplankton. Yes, copepods ingest microplastic. And if that weren’t bad enough, this plastic acts like a sponge to soak up hydrophobic contaminants from sea water – things like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and some metal compounds.
There’s been a recent resurgence in plastic ingestion studies in seabirds in the last 5 years, mostly focusing on documenting the species affected, and to what extent. For the vast majority of these studies, the plastic was assessed by dissection. The birds were either found dead (e.g., as bycatch or beachcast birds), or were collected for other purposes. A few studies actually used a stomach pump to flush things out but birds’ gizzard is a massively convoluted and ridged structure (and is where much of the plastic ends up). How could we be sure that we got everything out?
Another approach is to use emetics. These are pharmaceuticals that make you throw up. The reason so many packages of dangerous household substances say “do not induce vomiting” was because when I was growing up, we had a bottle of ipecac in the house (though never used) to induce vomiting as a method of poison control before the ambulance arrived to cart us away. This has generally fallen out of favour. But we wondered if it could be used to study plastic ingestion in birds.
Now, a few quick words about emetics. Some are toxic (like tartar emetic), especially if the dose isn’t right. Ipecac is considered non-toxic, but has been largely ignored by the ornithological community until about 2007.
We chose to look at Leach’s Storm-petrels, a cute, peaty-smelling adorable little seabird that breeds in the northern oceans (Newfoundland in our case). We got the ipecac, tried a few birds, and immediately noticed we had a problem – birds weren’t recovering from capture. The long and the short of it was 12 birds required euthanasia because we had held them too long, and they just couldn’t take it. It’s important to note that it wasn’t the emetic, and we couldn’t find anything in these birds (pre- or post-mortem) that would have told us they were more likely to keel over.
Now, I’ve been handling birds since 2005, and I figure I’ve banded well over 5000 individuals. I’ve got a Master Banding Permit from the Canadian Wildlife Service, and I’m always militant of putting the birds’ welfare ahead of data collection. Up until this study, I hadn’t had a single mortality. Ever. Period. Now I had 12 in about 3 days. Talk about shaken confidence.
We adjusted our protocols, and things went smoother. We found that almost half the birds had ingested plastic, and that the amount was of moderate concern. But what to do with those dead birds? I took them back to the lab and checked the GI tract – no plastic. Some of them had regurgitated plastic in the field, so that meant that the emetic worked – we got all the plastic (and food bits) out. This is a significant step forward for plastics research.
But how could you possibly write that in a paper? We included the data, and a brief section detailing our dissections. In the first round of reviews, the paper was rejected largely on ethical grounds. It’s important to remember that we had obtained approval from my university’s Animal Care and Use Committee. We appealed the decision to the editor, and the study was eventually published with a section called “Ethical considerations”. That’s what I want to really write about today.
Shit happens. Despite all our best efforts as researchers, sometimes things don’t work. In the most severe cases, animals die. It sucks, it’s awful, gut-wrenching, and demoralizing for the field crew. So we did the only thing we knew how – adopt, adapt, and improve. In our case, it worked.
But what I think is more important is that these birds were not “wasted”. The vocal tracts were removed for one study, and the spread wings & tails, along with skeletons will be sent to the Canadian Museum of Nature this spring for their museum collection. And, they gave us valuable insight into the efficacy of emesis.
Shit happens, but it’s what you do with it after the fact that matters. I think we had an ethical obligation to use those birds to their maximum potential. And by publishing our mortalities, others won’t make the same mistakes we did.
It was a damned hard paper to write, and even today, almost a year after the data collection, I still have a visceral reaction whenever I think of those three awful days. Even writing this post, my hands are sweaty, and my heartbeat faster than usual. But faced with the same situation, I don’t think I’d do anything differently.