Plastic Poses Additional Risk to Threatened Species

A bundle of mylar/helium balloons caught in Lyonia and palmettos in the Archbold scrub. Photo by Tori Bakley.

Author: Tori Bakley

Among the wall of green oak leaves and palmetto fronds, a silver shimmer catches the eye of Tori Bakley, a research assistant at Archbold Biological Station. Torn and tangled in the scrub oak branches, a deflated balloon still manages to shine in the afternoon sun—the third released balloon she’s found in the field that week.

As the saying goes, what goes up must come down, and this has become clear to Bakley during her time working outdoors. She says, “I’ve worked at research sites around the world and no matter how far I get from a city it seems like I can never escape the litter.” While balloons can drift miles through the air, other debris can travel surprising distances in wind or water if not disposed of properly.

Earlier this year while traveling through the scrub to collect data on Florida Scrub-Jay nests, Bakley stumbled across Gopher Tortoise droppings that appeared peculiar. Upon a closer look, the droppings contained pieces of mylar balloon. A wild tortoise had eaten a balloon that had floated into the scrub. Although the tortoise was able to pass pieces of the balloon, Archbold researchers don’t yet know if the tortoise will suffer from related complications, such as reduced nutritional intake or internal injuries. It is difficult to process findings like this since habitat is diligently managed for these endangered species and something as small as a single balloon can still threaten their lives. While Bakley is the first to document evidence of Gopher Tortoise plastic consumption, there are several reports of other species of turtles and tortoises consuming debris found in their habitat.

Greg Thompson, Archbold’s Red-Cockaded Woodpecker researcher based at Avon Park Air Force Range, was traveling through Longleaf Pine habitat when he, too, came across something unexpected. Attached to a lifeless balloon was a note written by a family from Plant City, Florida, roughly 50 miles away. They were hopeful their letter would travel to somewhere interesting, so they included their contact information in hopes of hearing back about the fate of their balloon. Unfortunately, its final destination happened to be one of the last remaining stands of Longleaf Pines, which the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker calls home.

Thompson took this opportunity to educate the family on the dangers of intentional balloon releases. He wrote back to update them on their balloon’s journey and to bring them into the conversation of humans’ direct impact on wildlife. He said, “It’s discouraging how often I come across mylar balloons and other plastic debris while out doing fieldwork. I don’t think people fully realize how much litter is created just by releasing balloons.”

Intentionally releasing balloons is illegal in several states, including Florida. Similar to littering, releasing 10 or more helium balloons is punishable by law and should be avoided. As we learn more about the hazards of balloon releases, their popularity in celebrations and memorials should diminish all together. Being mindful of the impacts our actions have on the world around us will help protect the threatened species and natural spaces we love so dearly.

A sample of Gopher Tortoise scat dissected to reveal many pieces of plastic and vegetation. The plastic was determined to be from a balloon using a small label that was still legible on one of the pieces. Photo by Tori Bakley, previously published in Herpetological Review.

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