Meet The Scariest Inhabitant Of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Quite a few strange ocean critters have made homes for themselves among the trash vortex—millions of small and microscopic pieces of plastic floating over a roughly 5,000 sq km area of the Pacific. Marine biologist Miriam Goldstein has spent years studying these creatures, and recently came across one that alarmed her.

Meet The Scariest Inhabitant Of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

And, no, it's not some sort of mutant shark with impenetrable plastic skin. It's a single-celled organism—a ciliate—about the size of a sesame seed with tiny devil horns called Halofolliculina. Goldstein's collaborators, Hank Carson and Marcus Eriksen, recently found these little buggers living on plastic debris floating way offshore in the western Pacific. And, that's disturbing, since Halofolliculina is a pathogen that causes skeletal eroding band disease in corals (see photo)—and this piece of debris was headed towards Hawaii.

As Goldstein explains on the Deep Sea News blog:

Unfortunately, Hank and Marcus didn't save the corals of Hawaii by capturing these Halofolliculina. Skeletal eroding band disease was discovered in Hawaiian corals back in 2010. While It's not know how this disease got to Hawaii, a lot of plastic trash washes up on Hawaii, and it's possible that some of that trash had Halofolliculina living on it.

Along with Halofolliculina, there are all kinds of creatures living on plastic debris that wouldn't normally be able to survive floating in the middle of the ocean. Along with the usual members of the North Pacific rafting community— gooseneck barnacles, bryozoans, rafting crabs— we found brittle stars, sea spiders, and even a shipworm that was probably really unsatisfied living on plastic. Essentially, the trash acts like tiny little islands, with small pieces hosting only a few species, and large pieces (like tangled fishing nets) hosting many more.

We aren't sure what the impact of all these "misplaced" species is on the open ocean, or whether plastic was the sole vector that introduced skeletal eroding band disease to Hawaii. But plastic does not belong in the ocean, and we have really got to stop putting it there. No more cushy homes for devil ciliates!

Read more at Deep Sea News