Scientists have identified the sticky substance that is damaging the feathers of hundreds seabirds washed ashore in England as an additive for lubricant oils.
A mystery seaborne substance coating the feathers of hundreds of seabirds washed up on the shores of southern England has been identified as a commonly used oil additive, most likely spilled into the sea from a passing cargo ship.
The sticky, colorless substance seems to act like glue on the birds’ feathers, affecting their ability to keep warm and fly. Many of the birds affected over the past week—primarily guillemots, the most common seabird in the British Isles—have died, leading researchers at the University of Plymouth to perform chemical analyses of the offending substance.
They found that it is a form of polyisobutene (PIB), a lubricant additive used to improve the quality of lubricating oils.
The researchers told BBC News that PIB is “relatively common” and therefore transported around the world on cargo ships, but they have no idea about the source of this contamination. “Whether we can find out if it was spilled would require a cargo sample to compare it with,” said Chris Rowland, a chemist at Plymouth University.