Birds as bioindicators of plastic pollution in terrestrial and freshwater environments: A 30-year review

Imogen Mansfield*, Jim Reynolds, Iseult Lynch, Tom Matthews, Jon Sadler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

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Plastic pollution is a global concern that has grown ever more acute in recent years. Most research has focused on the impact of plastic pollution in marine environments. However, plastic is increasingly being detected in terrestrial and freshwater environments with key inland sources including landfills, where it is accessible to a wide range of organisms. Birds are effective bioindicators of pollutants for many reasons, including their high mobility and high intra- and interspecific variation in trophic levels. Freshwater and terrestrial bird species are under-represented in plastic pollution research compared to marine species. We reviewed 106 studies (spanning from 1994 onwards) that have detected plastics in bird species dwelling in freshwater and/or terrestrial habitats, identifying knowledge gaps. Seventy-two studies focused solely on macroplastics (fragments >5 mm), compared to 22 microplastics (fragments <5 mm) studies. A further 12 studies identified plastics as both microplastics and macroplastics. No study investigated nanoplastic (particles < 100 nm) exposure. Research to date has geographical and species’ biases while ignoring nanoplastic sequestration in free-living freshwater, terrestrial and marine bird species. Building on the baseline search presented here, we urge researchers to develop and validate standardised field sampling techniques and laboratory analytical protocols such as Raman spectroscopy to allow for the quantification and identification of micro- and nanoplastics in terrestrial and freshwater environments and the species therein. Future studies should consistently report the internalised and background concentrations, types, sizes and forms of plastics. This will enable a better understanding of the sources of plastic pollution and their routes of exposure to birds of terrestrial and freshwater environments, providing a more comprehensive insight into the potential impacts on birds.
Original languageEnglish
Article number123790
Number of pages15
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Early online date25 Mar 2024
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2024

Bibliographical note

The authors gratefully acknowledge provision of a CENTA studentship award to IM by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC ref. NE/S007350/1).


  • Avian
  • Ecotoxicology
  • Emerging pollutants
  • Pollution sinks


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