Microplastic study reveals the presence of natural and synthetic fibres in the diet of King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) foraging from South Georgia

Camille Le Guen, Giuseppe Suaria, Richard B. Sherley, Peter G. Ryan, Stefano Aliani, Lars Boehme, Andrew S. Brierley

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Marine ecosystems are experiencing substantial disturbances due to climate change and overfishing, and plastic pollution is an additional growing threat. Microfibres are among the most pervasive pollutants in the marine environment, including in the Southern Ocean. However, evidence for microfibre contamination in the diet of top predators in the Southern Ocean is rare. King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) feed on mesopelagic fish, which undergo diel vertical migrations towards the surface at night. Microfibres are concentrated in surface waters and sediments but can also be concentrated in fish, therefore acting as contamination vectors for diving predators feeding at depth. In this study, we investigate microfibre contamination of King Penguin faecal samples collected in February and March 2017 at South Georgia across three groups: incubating, chick-rearing and non-breeding birds. After a KOH digestion to dissolve the organic matter and a density separation step using a NaCl solution, the samples were filtered to collect microfibres. A total of 77% of the penguin faecal samples (36 of 47) contained microfibres. Fibres were measured and characterized using Fourier-Transform Infrared spectroscopy to determine their polymeric identity. Most fibres (88%) were made of natural cellulosic materials (e.g. cotton, linen), with only 12% synthetic (e.g. polyester, nylon) or semi-synthetic (e.g. rayon). An average of 21.9 ± 5.8 microfibres g−1 of faeces (lab dried mass) was found, with concentrations more than twice as high in incubating penguins than in penguins rearing chicks. Incubating birds forage further north at the Antarctic Polar Front and travel longer distances from South Georgia than chick-rearing birds. This suggests that long-distance travelling penguins are probably more exposed to the risk of ingesting microfibres when feeding north of the Antarctic Polar Front, which might act as a semi-permeable barrier for microfibres. Microfibres could therefore provide a signature for foraging location in King Penguins.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105303
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironment International
Early online date11 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • Antarctic predator
  • Microplastics
  • Fibres
  • Mesopelagic fish
  • Breeding stage
  • Foraging strategies


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