Pickled fish spawn eco clues

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Dr. Ben Keck inside the Etnier Ichthyological Collection.

Drinking straws, beverage bottles and product packaging are some of the common plastics that are now degrading inside the Tennessee River system and other freshwater streams. Once in the water, the plastic waste slowly degrades into smaller particles that are often ingested by fish.

The concern is that microplastics act as super magnets to absorb concentrated amounts of toxins that are suspended in minute levels throughout most all public drinking-water sources. The University of Tennessee (UT) is studying the potential impact of these toxins by trawling for microplastics inside the entrails of a small school of some 3,000 preserved fish.

The first-of-its-kind study hinges solely on the university’s on-campus pickled-fish museum, known as the David A. Etnier Ichthyological Collection. The archive is essentially a 45,000-jar library that contains an estimated 420,000 specimens from the Tennessee River. The fish samples — originally collected by both Tennessee Valley Authority biologists and university students — date as far back as 1965.