Scientists discover marine life on ocean trash heaps

Sea life is determined to live, scientists have found, as they have discovered dozens of marine species flourishing even amongst the heaping ocean trash piles of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The garbage patch is a massive gyre of debris roughly twice the size of Texas state, whirled about the ocean currents of the Northern Pacific. It’s also called the Pacific trash vortex. It was first documented around 1997, when a sailing yachtsman spotted a tangle of plastics, bottles, and fishing nets floating by.

Desolate as that may seem, new findings suggest marine species are colonizing these mountainous trash lands—researchers recorded more than 40 coastal species clinging to the flotsam, including mussels, barnacles, and shrimp-like amphipods, Greg Ruiz, a Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientist, told NBC News. “It’s almost like a new island has emerged,” he said, noting that the habitat “represents a paradigm shift of what we thought was possible.”

In the past, scientists observed that species could journey out to the high seas atop floating logs or driftwood, but once those organic materials dissolved, those species would essentially be stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no way to survive. The plastics of the garbage patch, however, present a different story, serving as a water-insoluble home base for plants and animals. More surprisingly, researchers found that coastal species—which are typically accustomed to more food-rich shorelines than the wide open ocean—were still able to forage for nutrients in the more remote waters of their trash home. In short, they have bloomed.

It’s a finding that has shaken the foundations of marine ecosystems as we know them, and could potentially cast ripple effects on the ocean food web or the migration of invasive species. Perhaps one day, coastal species could even feel more at home on a wandering plastic raft deep in the blue than by the edges of green earth. “The rate of evolutionary change could be quite rapid,” Ruiz told NBC News. “We don’t know the answer for the organisms in the garbage patch. Certainly the potential is there.”