Is Zooplankton an Entry Point of Microplastics into the Marine Food Web?

Kuddithamby Gunaalan*, Torkel Gissel Nielsen, Rocío Rodríguez Torres, Claudia Lorenz, Alvise Vianello, Ceelin Aila Andersen, Jes Vollertsen, Rodrigo Almeda*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Microplastics (MPs) overlap in size with phytoplankton and can be ingested by zooplankton, transferring them to higher trophic levels. Copepods are the most abundant metazoans among zooplankton and the main link between primary producers and higher trophic levels. Ingestion of MPs has been investigated in the laboratory, but we still know little about the ingestion of MPs by zooplankton in the natural environment. In this study, we determined the concentration and characteristics of MPs down to 10 μm in zooplankton samples, sorted calanoid copepods, and fecal pellets collected in the Kattegat/Skagerrak Sea (Denmark). We found a median concentration of 1.7 × 10-3 MPs ind-1 in the zooplankton samples, 2.9 × 10-3 MPs ind-1 in the sorted-copepods, and 3 × 10-3 MPs per fecal pellet. Most MPs in the zooplankton samples and fecal pellets were fragments smaller than 100 μm, whereas fibers dominated in the sorted copepods. Based on the collected data, we estimated a MP budget for the surface layer (0-18 m), where copepods contained only 3% of the MPs in the water, while 5% of the MPs were packed in fecal pellets. However, the number of MPs exported daily to the pycnocline via fecal pellets was estimated to be 1.4% of the total MPs in the surface layer. Our results indicate that zooplankton are an entry point of small MPs in the food web, but the number of MPs in zooplankton and their fecal pellets was low compared with the number of MPs found in the water column and the occurrence and/or ingestion of MPs reported for nekton. This suggests a low risk of MP transferring to higher trophic levels through zooplankton and a quantitatively low, but ecologically relevant, contribution of fecal pellets to the vertical exportation of MPs in the ocean.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number31
Pages (from-to)11643-11655
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Microplastics
  • Zooplankton
  • Copepods
  • Ingestion
  • Fecal pellets


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