Microplastics (<5 mm) are a threat to marine biodiversity however their effects on animal cognition and behaviour are unclear. We investigated whether microplastic exposure affects shell selection behaviour and motivation in the common European hermit crab, Pagurus bernhardus. Subjects were maintained for 5 days in tanks containing either: polyethylene microplastic spheres (n = 40), or no plastic (n = 40). They were then placed in low-quality shells and presented with an alternative high-quality shell. When they first touched the high-quality shell, the hermit crabs were startled using visual and aural stimuli. We recorded the post-startle latency to re-contact the high-quality shell, quantifying motivation to explore and acquire a better shell. Plastic-exposed females were more likely to select the high-quality shell than control females. As hypothesised, female hermit crabs had longer initial contact latencies, startle durations, and shell entry latencies than males. We also found an interaction effect on shell investigation duration: females from the control treatment spent longer investigating the high-quality shell compared to males. This was absent in the microplastic treatment with females behaving similar to males. This controlled study serves as a starting point to investigate the effects of microplastics and sex differences on behaviour when under predatory threat, and demonstrated sex dependent sensitivity to an environmental pollutant of global concern.
- Sex dependent