AColoured scanning electron micrograph of a six-legged creature with antennae and a long body.

Antarctic springtails (pictured), one of the dominant land animals on the continent, eat algae and lichens — and, unwittingly, bits of plastic attached to their food. Credit: British Antarctic Survey/SPL

Environmental sciences

Plastic fouls an Antarctic island’s wee beasts

Springtails, some of the most isolated animals on Earth, harbour polystyrene foam in their guts.

Plastic has found its way into a tiny animal in one of the most remote spots on the planet — an invasion that could degrade a food web already under threat from climate change.

In February 2016, researchers on King George Island off the coast of Antarctica came across a large piece of polystyrene foam, which is used for home insulation, packaging and other purposes. The foam was covered in moss, lichens, microscopic algae and one-millimetre-long six-legged creatures known as Antarctic springtails (Cryptopygus antarcticus).

Elisa Bergami at the University of Siena in Italy and her colleagues detected polystyrene’s chemical fingerprint in four springtail specimens, suggesting that the animals ingested the fragments accidentally while grazing on the algae and lichen that grew on the foam.

That’s cause for concern, the researchers warn. Cryptopygus antarcticus forms part of simple but functional food webs in glacier-free areas and rocky coastal sites where penguins roost and seals gather. Plastic waste might become a new danger in the already fragile ecosystems of Antarctica.