What sea squirts can tell us about plastic pollution

An Israeli researcher holds a sea squirt removed from the Red Sea as part of research work an Israeli team is conducting in the Israeli resort city of Eilat February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen - RC17186F7270

These small, rubbery creatures are able to survive in polluted waters. Image: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Ari Rabinovitch
Writer, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Ocean?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Ocean is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


A rubbery sea creature with an irritating habit of clinging to ships and invading beaches could help measure plastic pollution as it can filter tiny particles from the ocean and store them in its soft tissue.

Israeli researchers have found that ascidians - round, palm-sized animals also known as sea squirts can thrive in dirty industrial areas and pristine waters alike, allowing them to detect and analyze waste and its impact in various regions.

A staggering amount of plastic flows into the ocean each year. The United Nations says it is as if a garbage truck full of plastic was dumped into the water every minute, a rate some estimates show could lead to oceans carrying more plastic than fish in 30 years.

But the long-term impact of the waste, particularly tiny pieces called microplastic, is still not fully understood.

"[Sea squirts] just sit in one place all their life and filter the water, like a pump," said Gal Vered of Tel Aviv University, and who co-published the researchers' findings in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Have you read?

"They can really give us a picture of what the whole reef, the whole ecosystem felt during its life."

As a bonus, sea squirts are related in evolutionary terms to human beings. So studying them and the plastic inside them could be more insightful than looking at creatures like fish or clams.

"Although we don't look alike at all, we have similar systems," said Noa Shenkar, of Tel Aviv University's zoology department and museum of natural history.

Durable and dangerous

Plastic never disappears. Over time it breaks down into microplastics, ranging from the size of a grain of rice on down. They mix with tiny plastic beads found in products like cosmetics and cleaners that were flushed away.

These are eaten by wildlife, filling their bellies, exposing them to chemical additives and, potentially, entering the food chain, said Vered.

Vered searched piers and rocks in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, eventually finding a cluster of sea squirts on a brick.

Back in her lab, a gentle push on one squirt's belly saw the creature let loose the eponymous squirt of water. Invisible to the naked eye are the microplastics, perhaps once part of a bag or bottle, and that were found at all the sites they tested along Israel's coasts.

"We as humans invented a material that can last for hundreds, thousands of years, and then we use it as a single-use product. It's quite a paradox," she said.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
OceanFuture of the Environment
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

These technologies are helping to save our ocean

Johnny Wood

February 26, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum