A tiny crustacean is contributing to microplastics developing in Irish rivers, lakes and streams at a rate much faster than previously thought.
The miniature crustacean is a freshwater amphipod called Gammarus Duebeni, commonly found in Irish streams and rivers.
It acts to fragment plastic into microplastics and even nanoplastics - potentially ensuring their widespread distribution throughout the environment and possibly the food chain.
The revelation came in a University College Cork (UCC) study conducted with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Study leader Dr Alicia Mateos-Cárdenas said the research findings were very significant and quite alarming.
"We have found that the freshwater amphipod, a small crustacean, is able to fragment microplastics into different shapes and sizes, including nanoplastics, in less than four days," she said.
"Whilst this species lives in Irish streams, they belong to a bigger animal group of invertebrates commonly found around the world in freshwaters and oceans. Our finding has substantial consequences for the understanding of the environmental fate of microplastics."
The UCC study showed that microplastics (pieces smaller than 5mm) in freshwater sources are being broken down into even smaller nanoplastics (5,000 times smaller in size) by the action of the tiny crustacean.
It contradicts the previous belief that the creation of microplastic and nanoplastic pieces required a substantial period of time.