Marine debris from the bird’s mouth: Albatross bolus dissection lab

I’m teaching environmental science at Nassau Community College this semester and planned a lab to really help my students understand the problems associated with ocean plastics. I started the lab with a 30 minute lecture on ocean currents and gyres, marine debris, and albatross biology. Next, we watched the documentary “The Smog of the Sea”, which was available to view for free online at the time of this lab.  I also distributed a fact sheet about laysan albatross that the students read through after the video. I obtained the fact sheet from a national geographic virtual bolus dissection lab, which may be a good alternative for educators who are unable to obtain boluses (http://www.nationalgeographic.org/activity/laysan-albatross-virtual-bolus-dissection/)

After these intro activities, it was time to dissect the bolus. Like many birds, albatross regurgitate indigestible material. I had my students hypothesize how much of the bolus (as a percentage)  they thought would contain natural material like squid beaks, sand, rocks, etc vs. plastics. Once they began dissecting the boluses, they were shocked at all of the plastics they found. The plastics ranged in size from a large intact bottle cap all the way down to the size of small pills. Styrofoam, fishing line, partial toothpaste caps, and lots of miscellaneous plastic pieces were all found within the boluses. One bolus in particular had at least a yard of fishing line.

This lab was one of my favorite activities so far. I could have spoken to my class about ocean plastics for hours, and it wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact as dissecting those boluses. Several of the students told me this lab has made them re-evaluate their use of single-use plastics and that this lab was one of the most meaningful things they have done in college thus far.

The boluses were received from the Fish and Wildlife Service on Midway Atoll. They can be obtained by visiting the following website and filling out a bolus request form. I was informed that quantities are limited and each institution can only request boluses every other year. (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Midway_Atoll/Community/Bolus.html)

Resources:

The Smog of the Sea: https://www.thesmogofthesea.com

Virtual Bolus Dissection: http://www.nationalgeographic.org/activity/laysan-albatross-virtual-bolus-dissection/

Fish and wildlife service bolus program: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Midway_Atoll/Community/Bolus.html

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