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Microplastics in marine mammals from German waters and improvement of sample storage


Project leader: Prof. Prof. h. c. Dr. Ursula Siebert
Scientific work: M.Sc. Carolin Philipp
Further information:

Project description

The pollution of the marine environment by marine debris is still increasing. Besides macroplastic (obejcts larger than 2.5 cm), microplastic particles (MPPs) can also be found in the oceans.

Microplastic emerges due to the decay of larger plastic objects caused by physical forces, e.g. wind, waves or currents, and UV radiation: the so-called secondary microplastic. In addition, primary microplastic particles are particularly synthesised for different purposes (so-called nurdles or microbeads).

Owing to the small size of MPPs (< 5 mm), fish and other marine species ingest those particles either accidentally or by mistake.  Therefore, MPPs accumulates within the marine food web, especially in end predators like marine mammals.


Knowledge on possible associated health impacts caused by MPPs or toxicological consequences for marine mammals is lacking. For assessing the risk potential of MPPs, firstly the presence of these particles has to be verified. Due to that, this study focusses on the detection of MPPs in the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) of marine mammals.


The target species of this project are the three marine mammal species of German waters: the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) and the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). Tissue samples of the GIT, including stomach content and faeces, are collected and analysed for MPPs. Additionally, faeces samples were collected on German haul out sites. These samples ascertain a comprehensive investigation on the presence of MPPs in all three species.


Clean, filtered and isolated particles are stained and quantitative analysed using a fluorescence microscope. Additionally, some particles are qualitatively analysed to identify the polymer (Raman spectroscope) in cooperation with the University of Hamburg.


Moreover, this study additionally focusses on avoiding a contamination during and after sample taking, the so-called secondary pollution: established techniques are going to be improved and are used in combination with newly developed methods. Furthermore, knowledge on the influence of storage materials, such as plastic bags, is still lacking. Therefore, a set of samples is stored in glass jars and plastic bags for comparison reasons.


Analysed samples of the funded project by the Federal Environment Agency of Germany are included in this project (LINK).


Picture 1: A) washing samples; B) paticle in dense separation; C) percolation of samples; D) microplastics (stained by Nil-Read) under an Raman-Spectrometer. Photo Carolin Philipp, ITAW

Contact person

Stiftung Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover
Institute for Terrestrial and Aquatic Wildlife Research
Werftstr. 6
25761 Büsum


Carolin Philipp

send email

Stiftung Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover
Institute for Terrestrial and Aquatic Wildlife Research
Werftstr. 6
25761 Büsum
Tel.:+49 511 856-8170
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