The tiny creature is also known as a springtail and it is less than 1 millimeter in length, according to the scientists.
In a statement ahead of the release of their study, the researchers said their findings constituted the “first field-based evidence of contamination by microplastics in Antarctic terrestrial animals.”
They made their discovery after testing 18 animals which had been found on a large piece on polystyrene foam in 2016 on the shore of King George Island, situated north of the Antarctic continent.
Elisa Bergami, a researcher at the University of Siena who led the project, told CNN that she saw the plastic material while she was on a field trip in the “relatively highly polluted area.”
Explaining her decision to bring it to Italy for testing, Bergami said: “I was anxious about plastic debris stranded along the coast because we wanted to understand the pathways of plastic in this remote environment.”
The research team then used infrared spectroscopy at Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste, a research center in Italy, to detect the presence of microplastics inside the animals.
Bergami added that the creatures must have ingested the plastic as they ate the algae, moss and lichen that coated the polystyrene block.
She also noted that microplastics can transport pathogens and contaminants which are harmful to the animals they tested, as well as to other species in the ecosystem’s food chain.
Tancredi Caruso, an associate professor at University College Dublin and one of the study’s authors, said that the type of Collembola they tested is “very well-represented” in Antarctica – both on the continent and on islands like King George Island. This raises potential concerns for the entire ecosystem.
Caruso expressed his hope that the study would lead to more research, telling CNN: “For a long time, there’s been some underestimation of the potential negative role of plastics in ecosystems.”
The study is published in the journal Biology Letters.