Treatment-level impacts of microplastic exposure may be confounded by variation in individual-level responses in juvenile fish

Gerrit B. Nanninga, Assaf Pertzelan, Moshe Kiflawi, Roi Holzman, Isolde Plakolm, Andrea Manica

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Microplastic (MP) pollution is a key global environmental issue and laboratory exposure studies on aquatic biota are proliferating at an exponential rate. However, most research is limited to treatment-level effects, ignoring that there may be substantial within-population variation in responses to anthropogenic stressors. MP exposure experiments often reveal considerable, yet largely overlooked, inter-individual variation in particle uptake within concentration treatments. Here, we investigated to what degree treatment-level responses to MP exposure may be affected by variation in MP ingestion rates in the early life stages of a marine fish, the Gilt-head seabream, Sparus aurata. First, we tested whether MP ingestion variation is repeatable. Second, we assessed to what degree this variation may determine individual-level effects of MP exposure on fitness-related behavioural performance (i.e., escape response). We found that consistent inter-individual variation in MP ingestion was prevalent and led to differential impacts within exposure treatments. Individuals with high MP ingestion rates exhibited markedly inferior escape responses, a result that was partially concealed in treatment-level analyses. Our findings show that the measured response of populations to environmental perturbations could be confounded by variation in individual-level responses and that the explicit integration of MP ingestion variation can reveal cryptic patterns during exposure experiments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number126059
JournalJournal of Hazardous Materials
StatePublished - 15 Aug 2021


  • Anthropogenic contaminants
  • Individual-level analysis
  • Phenotypic variation
  • Repeatability
  • Startle response

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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