Marine Anthropogenic Litter

pp 141-181

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Marine Litter as Habitat and Dispersal Vector

  • Tim KiesslingAffiliated withFacultad Ciencias del Mar, Universidad Católica del Norte
  • , Lars GutowAffiliated withBiosciences | Functional Ecology, Alfred-Wegener-Institut Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung
  • , Martin ThielAffiliated withFacultad Ciencias del Mar, Universidad Católica del NorteCentro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Áridas (CEAZA)Nucleus Ecology and Sustainable Management of Oceanic Island (ESMOI) Email author 


Floating anthropogenic litter provides habitat for a diverse community of marine organisms. A total of 387 taxa, including pro- and eukaryotic micro-organisms, seaweeds and invertebrates, have been found rafting on floating litter in all major oceanic regions. Among the invertebrates, species of bryozoans, crustaceans, molluscs and cnidarians are most frequently reported as rafters on marine litter. Micro-organisms are also ubiquitous on marine litter although the composition of the microbial community seems to depend on specific substratum characteristics such as the polymer type of floating plastic items. Sessile suspension feeders are particularly well-adapted to the limited autochthonous food resources on artificial floating substrata and an extended planktonic larval development seems to facilitate colonization of floating litter at sea. Properties of floating litter, such as size and surface rugosity, are crucial for colonization by marine organisms and the subsequent succession of the rafting community. The rafters themselves affect substratum characteristics such as floating stability, buoyancy, and degradation. Under the influence of currents and winds marine litter can transport associated organisms over extensive distances. Because of the great persistence (especially of plastics) and the vast quantities of litter in the world’s oceans, rafting dispersal has become more prevalent in the marine environment, potentially facilitating the spread of invasive species.


Anthropogenic flotsam Rafting community Succession Biogeography Biological invasions Plastic pollution