Overview

There is increasing evidence of widespread ingestion of plastics by birds, mistaking it for food, during foraging. The demonstrated effects of plastic ingestion by birds include: reduction in body mass; starvation through gut blockage; ulceration/perforation of the digestive tract; and acute or chronic toxicity induced by chemicals contained in the plastic. Flame retardants (FRs) are chemicals widely applied to plastics, fabrics and foams to flame-proof consumer products. There is a vast reservoir of FRs ending up in landfills with e-waste plastics and furniture fabrics. Given the toxic implications of these FRs (e.g. endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity) and their ability to bioaccumulate, this project will provide novel insights into the role of ingested plastics as conduits of FRs to birds, for example gulls (Larus spp.), feeding on UK landfill. This will be achieved by investigating the relationship between FRs in the plastics isolated from the gut content of birds and those in the birds’ tissues. Pre-hatch exposure to hazardous FRs will be assessed via analysis of the birds’ eggs and potential correlation of FRs in the eggs with the parent birds will be explored. We will also analyse gut contents, tissues and eggs of birds feeding in rural locations (i.e. ‘control’ sites away from landfills) for comparative purposes. This will allow elucidating the role of ingested plastics in determining birds’ body burdens of FRs. Moreover, we will work closely with our partners at Environment & Climate Change Canada who have extensive experience of studying FRs in birds including the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) living on landfills in the Great Lakes Basin. This parallel approach adds an international dimension to the project as it allows comparison of FRs in birds across two different continents (e.g. we hypothesize higher concentrations of Penta-BDE in Canadian Starlings due to extensive use of this FR in North America).

The project’s multidisciplinary approach provides an excellent opportunity for training in various aspects of fieldwork, avian ecology and advanced environmental analysis. Moreover, it provides an exceptional opportunity for research training in Canada, whereby the successful candidate will work collaboratively in a truly international context.

Gulls foraging at a landfill site where plastic debris is prevalent. (Photograph: Stephen Wilkes).

Methodology

We will test the hypothesis that plastic debris in landfills represents a major exposure pathway of feeding birds to FRs. To achieve this we will obtain ingesta from the gut contents of birds by either collection of regurgitants or lavage and then isolate plastic particles using a standard chemical digestion and filtration procedure. The isolated plastics will be weighed and characterised by electron microscopy. A broad suite of FRs will be determined in the isolated plastics, birds’ tissues (e.g. blood and body feathers) and eggs using our validated mass spectrometric methods. We will also apply a qualitative untargeted approach to identify potential metabolites of FRs in the samples. Statistical models will be constructed to study the relationships between the extent of ingested plastics and the burdens of FRs in different avian body and egg compartments, including their transfer from the former to the latter.  

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to the student's projects and themes. 

The project has a strong multidisciplinary component, combining aspects of avian ecology and environmental analytical chemistry. Consequently, subject-specific training will be offered in each of these areas. This will comprise a mix of appropriate postgraduate level training (e.g. Pollution Management and Control, Environmental Analysis and Modelling) and “hands-on” training in the advanced microscopic and mass spectrometric methods used. The successful candidate will also undertake Home Office-accredited training in aspects of animal work including ethical considerations.

Timeline

Year 1: Literature review, training in generic research techniques (e.g. research ethics, project planning, lab safety), and subject-specific training in collecting avian tissues, and egg and gut contents; application of analytical methods for the determination of FRs in target matrices; identification of sampling locations, field training and execution of methods for sampling avian tissues and eggs.

Year 2: Continue fieldwork and sampling of avian tissues and eggs from UK sites; isolation of plastics from the birds’ gut contents and their characterization using electron microscopy; determination of FR concentrations in samples; write-up of initial data for international conference presentation towards the end of Year 2.

Year 3: Complete field sampling of bird tissues and eggs from UK sites; undertake research visit to Environment Canada to participate in field sampling of avian tissues and eggs (start of Year 3); complete determination of FR concentrations in samples; write research papers and thesis; make second presentation at international conference towards end of Year 3

Year 4: Completion of thesis and writing of papers.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The project involves collaboration between the Schools of GEES and Biosciences (at UOB) and our partners, Environment and Climate Change Canada, with Dr Kim Fernie. Dr Fernie studies how FRs influence the breeding biology of several avian taxa, including the introduced European Starling that forages and breeds at landfill sites in Canada. It is Red-listed in the UK but has pest status in Canada. This collaboration provides the PhD student with an exciting opportunity to work on different avian taxa on two continents, to examine their relative efficacy as bio-indicators of chemical contamination at higher trophic levels.

Further Details

For further information, please contact either Dr Mohamed Abdallah, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences (M.abdallah@bham.ac.uk; 0121 414 5527; Webpage) or Dr S. James Reynolds, School of Biosciences (J.Reynolds.2@bham.ac.uk; 0121 414 3639; Webpage), University of Birmingham.