Balloons & Wildlife

Whether intact or “shattered”, balloons that fall to earth present a threat to wildlife when they are mistaken by animals as food. Once it enters the digestive track, a balloon can reduce food uptake, block the intestinal tract, and eventually cause an animal to slowly starve to death. Other animals can become entangled in the balloon material or the ribbon, making them unable to move or feed, leading again to an eventual death by starvation.

When a latex balloon undergoes “brittle fracture”, the resulting debris often shreds into tentacle-like strings that remain attached at a central hub, resembling a jellyfish or squid. The Scyphomedusae jellyfish are a common prey item of sea turtles, and in one study latex “jellyfish balloons” (or balloon fragments) ingestion was observed in 30% of turtles and represented 3% of the ingested debris.¹

Why do wildlife mistake balloons for food? On land and in water, balloon remains can resemble common prey or food types, like flower petals, fruit, or jellyfish. If biomimicry is the intentional design and production of materials and systems modeled on the natural environment, when inadvertent this process could be thought of as “apatobiomimicry”:

a·pa·to·bi·o·mim·ic·ry

/əˈpatōˈbīōˈmiməkrē/

noun

The inadvertent and deceptive resemblance of anthropomorphic materials, structures, and systems to biological entities and processes.

{from the Greek words apatē (ἀπάτη)/apatēlos (ἀπατηλός) meaning “deception”/”deceptive”, βίος (bios), life, and μίμησις (mīmēsis), imitation, from μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai), to imitate, from μῖμος (mimos), actor.}

When balloons enter the natural environment, they become what we at #mcd refer to as apatobiomimics: anthropomorphic materials that inadvertently and deceptively resemble biological entities or processes.

Examples of apatobiomimicry have been reported in the following species:

Sea (Marine) Turtles

Laist, David W. 1997. Impacts of Marine Debris: Entanglement of Marine Life in Marine Debris Including a Comprehensive List of Species with Entanglement and Ingestion Records. In James M. Coe and Donald B. Rogers (editors), Marine Debris: Sources, Impacts, and Solutions, Springer.

Lutz, Peter L. 1990. Studies on the Studies on the Ingestion of Plastic and Latex by Sea Turtles. In R . S . Shomura and M. L. Godfrey (editors), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris, 2 – 7 April 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii. U.S . Department of Commerce, NOAA Tech Memo, NMFS. NOM-TM-NMFS-SUFSC-154. 1990.

Mrosovsky, N., Geraldine D. Ryan, and Michael C. James. 2009. Leatherback Turtles: The Menace of Plastic. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58: pp. 287-289.

Nelms, Sarah E., Emily M. Duncan, Annette C. Broderick, Tamara S. Galloway, Matthew H. Godfrey, Mark Hamman, Penelope K. Lindeque, and Brendan J. Godley. 2015. Plastic and Marine Turtles: A Review and Call for Research. ICES Journal of Marine Science. doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsv165.

Plotkin, Pamela and Anthony F. Amos. 1990. Effects of Anthropogenic Debris on Sea Turtles in the Northwestern Gulf of Mexico. In R . S . Shomura and M. L. Godfrey (editors), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris, 2 – 7 April 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii. U.S . Department of Commerce, NOAA Tech Memo, NMFS-NOM-TM-NMFS-SUFSC-154. 1990.

Schuyler Qamar, Britta Denis Hardesty ,Chris Wilcox, and Kathy Townsend. 2012. To Eat or Not to Eat? Debris Selectivity by Marine Turtles. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40884. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0040884.

Schuyler Qamar, Britta Denis Hardesty ,Chris Wilcox, and Kathy Townsend. 2013. Global Analysis of Anthropogenic Debris Ingestion by Sea Turtles. Conservation Biology 28(1): pp. 129-139.

Witzel, W. N. and Wendy G. Teas. 1994. _The Impacts of Anthropogenic Debris on Marine Turtles in the Western North Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Tech Memo, NMFS-SEFSC-355.

Marine Mammals

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program. 2014. Report on the Entanglement of Marine Species in Marine Debris with an Emphasis on Species in the United States. Report on the Entanglement of Marine Species in Marine Debris with an Emphasis on Species in the United States. Silver Spring, MD. 28 pp.

Wilcox, Chris, Nicholas J. Mallos, George H. Leonard, Alba Rodriguez, and Britta Denise Hardesty. 2016. Using Expert Elicitation to Estimate the Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Marine Wildlife. Marine Policy 65: pp 107–114.

Big Horn Sheep

Barboza, Rebecca. 2010. Floating Menace. Outdoor California. January-February. pp 29-32.

Desert Tortoises

Walde, Andrew D., Meagan L. Harless, David K. Delaney, and Larry L. Pater. 2007.  Anthropogenic Threat to the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii): Litter in the Mojave Desert. Western North American Naturalist 67(1): pp. 147–149.

Zylstra, E. R. 2013. Accumulation of Wind-Dispersed Trash in Desert Environments. Journal of Arid Environments 89: pp 13-15.