Animal contests and microplastics: evidence of disrupted behaviour in hermit crabs Pagurus bernhardus

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Microplastics are ubiquitous in global marine systems and may have negative impacts on a vast range of species. Recently, microplastics were shown to impair shell selection assessments in hermit crabs, an essential behaviour for their survival. Hermit crabs also engage in ‘rapping’ contests over shells, based on cognitive assessments of shell quality and opponent fighting ability and, hence, are a useful model species for examining the effects of microplastics on fitness-relevant behaviour in marine systems. Here, we investigated how a 5-day microplastic exposure (25 microplastics/litre) affected the dynamics and outcome of 120 staged hermit crab contests. Using a 2 × 2 factorial design, we examined how microplastics (i.e. presence or absence) and contestant role (i.e. attacker or defender) affected various behavioural variables. Significantly higher raps per bout were needed to evict microplastic-treated defenders when attackers were pre-exposed to control conditions (i.e. no plastic). Also, significantly longer durations of rapping bouts were needed to evict control-treated defenders when attackers were pre-exposed to microplastics. We suggest that microplastics impaired defenders' ability to identify resource holding potential and also affected attackers’ rapping strength and intensity during contests. These impacts on animal contests indicate that microplastics have broader deleterious effects on marine biota than currently recognized.
Original languageEnglish
Article number211089
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 13 Oct 2021


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