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12th August 2017
Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when ingested in adequate amounts, can have a positive effect on the health of guests (FAO / WHO 2006; World Gastroenterology Organization 2011, Fontana et al., 2013). Guests can be humans but also other animals. Lactic acid bacteria, especially the genus Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, both considered as GRAS (Generally recognized as safe), are the microbes most commonly used as probiotics, but other bacteria and some yeasts can also be useful. Apart from being able to be administered as medications, probiotics are commonly consumed for millennia as part of fermented foods, such as yoghurt and other dairy products (see my article “European cheese from 7400 years ago..” “December 26th, 2012). As medications, probiotics are generally sold without prescription, over-the-counter (OTC) in pharmacies.
I have already commented on the other posts of this blog the relevance of probiotics (“A new probiotic modulates microbiota against hepatocellular carcinoma” August 24th, 2016), as well as the microbiota that coexists with our body (“Bacteria in the gut controlling what we eat” October 12th, 2014; “The good bacteria of breast milk” February 3rd, 2013) and other animals (“Human skin microbiota … and our dog” December 25th, 2015; “The herbivore giant panda …. and its carnivore microbiota” September 30th, 2015).
Besides lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria, other microorganisms that are also used to a certain extent as probiotics are the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, some strains of Escherichia coli, and some Bacillus, as we will see. Some clostridia are also used, related to what I commented in a previous post of this blog by March 21st, 2015 (“We have good clostridia in the gut ...”).
In fact, Bacillus and clostridia have in common the ability to form endospores. And both groups are gram-positive bacteria, within the taxonomic phylum Firmicutes (Figure 1), which also includes lactic acid bacteria. However, bacilli (Bacillus and similar ones, but also Staphylococcus and Listeria) are more evolutionarily closer to lactobacillalles (lactic acid bacteria) than to clostridia ones. The main physiological difference between Clostridium and Bacillus is that the first are strict anaerobes while Bacillus are aerobic or facultative anaerobic.
Figure 1. Phylogenetic tree diagram of Gram-positive bacteria (Firmicutes and Actinobacteria). Own elaboration.
Bacterial endospores (Figure 2) are the most resistant biological structures, as they survive extreme harsh environments, such as UV and gamma radiation, dryness, lysozyme, high temperatures (they are the reference for thermal sterilization calculations), lack of nutrients and chemical disinfectants. They are found in the soil and in the water, where they can survive for very long periods of time.
Figure 2. Endospores (white parts) of Bacillus subtilis in formation (Image of Simon Cutting).
Bacillus in fermented foods, especially Asian
Several Bacillus are classically involved in food fermentation processes, especially due to their protease production capacity. During fermentation, this contributes to nutritional enrichment with amino acids resulting from enzymatic proteolysis.
Some of these foods are fermented rice flour noodles, typical of Thailand and Burma (nowadays officially Myanmar). It has been seen that a variety of microorganisms (lactic acid bacteria, yeasts and other fungi) are involved in this fermentation, but also aerobic bacteria such as B. subtilis. It has been found that their proteolytic activity digests and eliminates protein rice substrates that are allergenic, such as azocasein, and therefore they have a beneficial activity for the health of consumers (Phromraksa et al. 2009).
However, the best-known fermented foods with Bacillus are the alkaline fermented soybeans. As you know, soy (Glycine max) or soya beans are one of the most historically consumed nourishing vegetables, especially in Asian countries. From they are obtained “soy milk”, soybean meal, soybean oil, soybean concentrate, soy yogurt, tofu (soaked milk), and fermented products such as soy sauce, tempeh, miso and other ones. Most of them are made with the mushroom Rhizopus, whose growth is favoured by acidification or by direct inoculation of this fungus. On the other hand, if soy beans are left to ferment only with water, the predominant natural microbes fermenting soy are Bacillus, and in this way, among other things, the Korean “chongkukjang” is obtained, “Kinema” in India, the “thua nao” in northern Taiwan, the Chinese “douchi”, the “chine pepoke” from Burma, and the best known, the Japanese “natto” (Figure 3). Spontaneous fermentation with Bacillus gives ammonium as a by-product, and therefore is alkaline, which gives a smell not very good to many of these products. Nevertheless, natto is made with a selected strain of B. subtilis that gives a smoother and more pleasant smell (Chukeatirote 2015).
These foods are good from the nutritional point of view as they contain proteins, fibre, vitamins, and they are of vegetable or microbial origin. In addition, the advertising of the commercial natto emphasizes, besides being handmade and sold fresh (not frozen), its probiotic qualities, saying that B. subtilis (Figure 4) promotes health in gastrointestinal, immunologic, cardiovascular and osseous systems (www.nyrture.com). They say the taste and texture of natto are exquisite. It is eaten with rice or other ingredients and sauces, and also in the maki sushi. We must try it !
Figure 3. “Natto”, soybeans fermented with B. subtilis, in a typical Japanese breakfast with rice (Pinterest.com).
Figure 4. Coloured electronic micrograph of Bacillus subtilis (Nyrture.com).
Bacillus as probiotics
The endospores are the main advantage of Bacillus being used as probiotics, thanks to their thermal stability and to survive in the gastric conditions (Cutting 2011). Although Clostridium has also this advantage, its strict anaerobic condition makes its manipulation more complex, and moreover, for the “bad reputation” of this genus due to some well-known toxic species.
Unlike other probiotics such as Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, Bacillus endospores can be stored indefinitely without water. The commercial products are administered in doses of 10^9 spores per gram or per ml.
There are more and more commercial products of probiotics containing Bacillus, both for human consumption (Table 1) and for veterinary use (Table 2). In addition, there are also five specific products for aquaculture with several Bacillus, and also shrimp farms are often using products of human consumption (Cutting 2011).
For use in aquaculture, probiotic products of mixtures of Bacillus (B. thuringiensis, B. megaterium, B. polymixa, B. licheniformis and B. subtilis) have been obtained by isolating them from the bowel of the prawn Penaeus monodon infected with vibriosis. They have been selected based on nutrient biodegradation and the inhibitory capacity against the pathogen Vibrio harveyi (Vaseeharan & Ramasamy 2003). They are prepared freeze-dried or microencapsulated in sodium alginate, and it has been shown to significantly improve the growth and survival of shrimp (Nimrat et al., 2012).
As we see for human consumption products, almost half of the brands (10 of 25) are made in Vietnam. The use of probiotic Bacillus in this country is more developed than in any other, but the reasons are not clear. Curiously, as in other countries in Southeast Asia, there is no concept of dietary supplements and probiotics such as Bacillus are only sold as medications approved by the Ministry of Health. They are prescribed for rotavirus infection (childhood diarrhoea) or immune stimulation against poisoning, or are very commonly used as a therapy against enteric infections. However, it is not clear that clinical trials have been carried out, and they are easy-to-buy products (Cutting 2011).
Table 1. Commercial products of probiotics with Bacillus, for human consumption (modified from Cutting 2011).
|Product||Country where it is made||Species of Bacillus|
|Bactisubtil ®||France||B. cereus|
|Bibactyl ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis|
|Bidisubtilis ®||Vietnam||B. cereus|
|Bio-Acimin ®||Vietnam||B. cereus and 2 other|
|Biobaby ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis and 2 other|
|Bio-Kult ®||United Kingdom||B. subtilis and 13 other|
|Biosporin ®||Ukraine||B. subtilis + B. licheniformis|
|Biosubtyl ®||Vietnam||B. cereus|
|Biosubtyl DL ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis and 1 other|
|Biosubtyl I and II ®||Vietnam||B. pumilus|
|Biovicerin ®||Brazil||B. cereus|
|Bispan ®||South Korea||B. polyfermenticus|
|Domuvar ®||Italy||B. clausii|
|Enterogermina ®||Italy||B. clausii|
|Flora-Balance ®||United States||B. laterosporus *|
|Ildong Biovita ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis and 2 other|
|Lactipan Plus ®||Italy||B. subtilis *|
|Lactospore ®||United States||B. coagulans *|
|Medilac-Vita ®||China||B. subtilis|
|Nature’s First Food ®||United States||42 strains, including 4 B.|
|Neolactoflorene ®||Italy||B. coagulans * and 2 other|
|Pastylbio ®||Vietnam||B. subtilis|
|Primal Defense ®||United States||B. subtilis|
|Subtyl ®||Vietnam||B. cereus|
|Sustenex ®||United States||B. coagulans|
* Some labelled as Lactobacillus or other bacteria are really Bacillus
Table 2. Commercial products of probiotics with Bacillus, for veterinary use (modified from Cutting 2011).
|Product||Animal||Country where it is made||Species of Bacillus|
|AlCare ®||Swine||Australia||B. licheniformis|
|BioGrow ®||Poultry, calves and swine||United Kingdom||B. licheniformis and B. subtilis|
|BioPlus 2B ®||Piglets, chickens, turkeys||Denmark||B. licheniformis and B. subtilis|
|Esporafeed Plus ®||Swine||Spain||B. cereus|
|Lactopure ®||Poultry, calves and swine||India||B. coagulans *|
|Neoferm BS 10 ®||Poultry, calves and swine||France||B. clausii|
|Toyocerin ®||Poultry, calves, rabbits and swine||Japan||B. cereus|
The Bacillus species that we see in these Tables are those that really are found, once the identification is made, since many of these products are poorly labelled as Bacillus subtilis or even as Lactobacillus (Green et al. 1999; Hoa et al. 2000). These labelling errors can be troubling for the consumer, and especially for security issues, since some of the strains found are Bacillus cereus, which has been shown to be related with gastrointestinal infections, since some of them produce enterotoxins (Granum & Lund 1997; Hong et al. 2005)
The probiotic Bacillus have been isolated from various origins. For example, some B. subtilis have been isolated from the aforementioned Korean chongkukjang, which have good characteristics of resistance to the gastrointestinal tract (GI) conditions and they have antimicrobial activity against Listeria, Staphylococcus, Escherichia and even against B. cereus (Lee et al. 2017).
One of the more known probiotics pharmaceuticals is Enterogermina ® (Figure 5), with B. subtilis spores, which is recommended for the treatment of intestinal disorders associated with microbial alterations (Mazza 1994).
Figure 5. Enterogermina ® with spores of Bacillus subtilis (Cutting 2011)
Bacillus in the gastrointestinal tract: can they survive there ?
It has been discussed whether administered spores can germinate in the GI tract. Working with mice, Casula & Cutting (2002) have used modified B. subtilis, with a chimeric gene ftsH-lacZ, which is expressed only in vegetative cells, which can be detected by RT-PCR up to only 100 bacteria. In this way they have seen that the spores germinate in significant numbers in the jejunum and in the ileum. That is, spores could colonize the small intestine, albeit temporarily.
Similarly, Duc et al. (2004) have concluded that B. subtilis spores can germinate in the gut because after the oral treatment of mice, in the faeces are excreted more spores that the swallowed ones, a sign that they have been able to proliferate. They have also detected, through RT-PCR, mRNA of vegetative bacilli after spore administration, and in addition, it has been observed that the mouse generates an IgG response against bacterial vegetative cells. That is, spores would not be only temporary stagers, but they would germinate into vegetative cells, which would have an active interaction with the host cells or the microbiota, increasing the probiotic effect.
With all this, perhaps it would be necessary to consider many Bacillus as not allochthonous of the GI tract, but as bacteria with a bimodal growth and sporulation life cycle, both in the environment and in the GI tract of many animals (Hong et al. 2005).
Regarding the normal presence of Bacillus in the intestine, when the different microorganisms inhabiting the human GI tract are studied for metagenomic DNA analysis of the microbiota, the genus Bacillus does not appear (Xiao et al., 2015). As we can see (Figure 6), the most common are Bacteroides and Clostridium, followed by various enterobacteria and others, including bifidobacteria.
Figure 6. The 20 bacterial genera more abundant in the mice (left) and human (right) GI tract (Xiao et al. 2015).
In spite of this, several species of Bacillus have been isolated from the GI tract of chickens, treating faecal samples with heat and ethanol to select only the spores, followed by aerobic incubation (Barbosa et al. 2005). More specifically, the presence of B. subtilis in the human microbiota has been confirmed by selective isolation from biopsies of ileum and also from faecal samples (Hong et al. 2009). These strains of B. subtilis exhibited great diversity and had the ability to form biofilms, to sporulate in anaerobiosis and to secrete antimicrobials, thereby confirming the adaptation of these bacteria to the intestine. In this way, these bacteria can be considered intestinal commensals, and not only soil bacteria.
Security of Bacillus as probiotics
The oral consumption of important amounts of viable microorganisms that are not very usual in the GI treatment raises additional doubts about safety. Even more in the use of species that do not have a history of safe use in foods, as is the case of sporulated bacteria. Even normal bowel residents may sometimes act as opportunistic pathogens (Sanders et al. 2003).
With the exception of B. anthracis and B. cereus, the various species of Bacillus are generally not considered pathogenic. Of course, Bacillus spores are commonly consumed inadvertently with foods and in some fermented ones. Although Bacillus are recognized as GRAS for the production of enzymes, so far the FDA has not guaranteed the status of GRAS for any sporulated bacteria with application as a probiotic, neither Bacillus nor Clostridium. While Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been the subject of numerous and rigorous tests of chronic and acute non-toxicity, and a lot of experts have reviewed data and have concluded that they are safe as probiotics, there is no toxicity data published on Bacillus in relation to their use as probiotics. When reviewing articles on Medline with the term “probiotic” and limited to clinical studies, 123 references appear, but Bacillus does not appear in any of them (Sanders et al. 2003).
Instead, there are some clinical studies where Bacillus strains have been detected as toxigenic. All this explains that some probiotic Bacillus producers refer to them with the misleading name of Lactobacillus sporogenes, a non-existent species, as can be seen from NCBI (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/taxonomy/?term = Lactobacillus + sporogenes).
Finally, we should remember the joint report on probiotics of FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization) (FAO / WHO 2006), which suggests a set of Guidelines for a product to be used as a probiotic, alone or in the form of a new food supplement. These recommendations are:
- The microorganism should be well characterized at the species level, using phenotypic and genotypic methods (e.g. 16S rRNA).
- The strain in question should be deposited in an internationally recognized culture collection.
- To evaluate the strain in vitro to determine the absence of virulence factors: it should not be cytotoxic neither invades epithelial cells, and not produce enterotoxins or haemolysins or lecithinases.
- Determination of its antimicrobial activity, and the resistance profile, including the absence of resistance genes and the inability to transfer resistance factors.
- Preclinical evaluation of its safety in animal models.
- Confirmation in animals demonstrating its effectiveness.
- Human evaluation (Phase I) of its safety.
- Human evaluation (Phase II) of its effectiveness (if it does the expected effect) and efficiency (with minimal resources and minimum time).
- Correct labelling of the product, including genus and species, precise dosage and conservation conditions.
The use of Bacillus as probiotics, especially in the form of dietary supplements, is increasing very rapidly. More and more scientific studies show their benefits, such as immune stimulation, antimicrobial activities and exclusive competition. Their main advantage is that they can be produced easily and that the final product, the spores, is very stable, which can easily be incorporated into daily food. In addition, there are studies that suggest that these bacteria may multiply in GI treatment and may be considered as temporary stagers (Cutting 2011).
On the other hand, it is necessary to ask for greater rigor in the selection and control of the Bacillus used, since some, if not well identified, could be cause of intestinal disorders. In any case, since the number of products sold as probiotics that contain the sporulated Bacillus is increasing a lot, one must not assume that all are safe and they must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis (Hong et al. 2005).
Barbosa TM, Serra CR, La Ragione RM, Woodward MJ, Henriques AO (2005) Screening for Bacillus isolates in the broiler gastrointestinal tract. Appl Environ Microbiol 71, 968-978.
Casula G, Cutting SM (2002) Bacillus probiotics: Spore germination in the gastrointestinal tract. Appl Environ Microbiol 68, 2344-2352.
Chukeatirote E (2015) Thua nao: Thai fermented soybean. J Ethnic Foods 2, 115-118.
Cutting SM (2011) Bacillus probiotics. Food Microbiol 28, 214-220.
Duc LH, Hong HA, Barbosa TM, Henriques AO, Cutting SM (2004) Characterization of Bacillus probiotics available for human use. Appl Environ Microbiol 70, 2161-2171.
FAO/WHO (2006) Probiotics in food. Health and nutritional properties and guidelines for evaluation. Fao Food and Nutrition Paper 85. Reports of Joint FAO/WHO expert consultations.
Fontana L, Bermudez-Brito M, Plaza-Diaz J, Muñoz-Quezada S, Gil A (2013) Sources, isolation, characterization and evaluation of probiotics. Brit J Nutrition 109, S35-S50.
Granum, P. E., T. Lund (1997) Bacillus cereus and its food poisoning toxins. FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 157:223–228.
Green, D. H., P. R. Wakeley, A. Page, A. Barnes, L. Baccigalupi, E. Ricca, S. M. Cutting (1999) Characterization of two Bacillus probiotics. Appl Environ Microbiol 65, 4288–4291.
Hoa, N. T., L. Baccigalupi, A. Huxham, A. Smertenko, P. H. Van, S. Ammendola, E. Ricca, A. S. Cutting (2000) Characterization of Bacillus species used for oral bacteriotherapy and bacterioprophylaxis of gastrointestinal disorders. Appl Environ Microbiol 66, 5241–5247.
Hong HA, Dic LH, Cutting SM (2005) The use of bacterial spore formers as probiotics. FEMS Microbiol Rev 29, 813-835.
Hong HA, Khaneja R, Tam NMK, Cazzato A, Tan S, Urdaci M, Brisson A, Gasbarrini A, Barnes I, Cutting SM (2009) Bacillus subtilis isolated from the human gastrointestinal tract. Res Microbiol 160, 134-143.
Lee S, Lee J, Jin YI, Jeong JC, Hyuk YH, Lee Y, Jeong Y, Kim M (2017) Probiotic characteristics of Bacillus strains isolated from Korean traditional soy sauce. LWT – Food Sci Technol 79, 518-524.
Mazza P (1994) The use of Bacillus subtilis as an antidiarrhoeal microorganism. Boll Chim. Farm. 133, 3-18.
Nimrat S, Suksawat S, Boonthai T, Vuthiphandchai V (2012) Potential Bacillus probiotics enhance bacterial numbers, water quality and growth during early development of white shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei). Veterinary Microbiol 159, 443-450.
Phromraksa P, Nagano H, Kanamaru Y, Izumi H, Yamada C, Khamboonruang C (2009) Characterization of Bacillus subtilis isolated from Asian fermented foods. Food Sci Technol Res 15, 659-666.
Sanders ME, Morelli L, Tompkins TA (2003) Sporeformers as human probiotics: Bacillus, Sporolactobacillus, and Brevibacillus. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Safety 2, 101-110
Vaseeharan, B., P. Ramasamy (2003) Control of pathogenic Vibrio spp. by Bacillus subtilis BT23, a possible probiotic treatment for black tiger shrimp Penaeus monodon. Lett Appl Microbiol 36, 83–87
World Gastroenterology Organisation Global Guidelines (2011) Probiotics and Prebiotics.
Xiao et al. (2015) A catalogue of the mouse gut metagenome. Nature Biotechnol 33, 1103-1108.
March 20th, 2016
The Arctic Ocean
Interestingly and coincidentally, “Arctic” comes from the Greek word αρκτος -arctos-, which means “bear” and is a reference to the constellation Ursa Minor, where is the North Star, which indicates the geographic North Pole .
The Arctic constitutes a unique ecosystem of the Earth, consisting of a large ice field, or ice-covered ocean, sometimes regarded as the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean, and it is surrounded by land, which is permafrost, with complete absence of trees. Life in the Arctic consists of organisms adapted to ice, including zooplankton and phytoplankton, fish, marine mammals, birds, land animals, plants and human societies fully adapted to the extreme conditions of the environment.
Due to global warming, isotherms are moving northward at a rate exceeding 50 km per decade over the past 30 years, so if we define the Arctic from a defined temperature or the tree line, its size is diminishing, being the reduction of sea ice the most visible effect.
Anthropogenic climate change: global warming, especially in the Arctic
Yes: climate change is here and it is generated by human activities, that is, it is anthropogenic. Previously there have been on Earth fluctuations in global temperature caused by natural phenomena, usually long-term and cyclical variations. For example, glaciations since about 2 million years are repeated every 100,000 years, and last ice age ended 15,000 years ago. So we are living now in an interglacial period and the next ice age could become not before 50,000 years. The cause of this cycle of glaciations seems to be orbital variations of the Earth, resulting in a lower insolation in high latitudes of the northern hemisphere during glacial periods.
Solar activity, like other stars, has cycles and roughly every 600 years there are periods of little activity (absence of very few solar spots and auroras), with lower energy output, which corresponds to cold periods in the Earth’s climate. The last minimal was in the period 1645-1715, and therefore from the middle of the eighteenth century we enjoy a maximum solar activity, with small cycles of minimum and maximum every 11 years.
Discounting these natural variations, it is clear that throughout the 20th century and especially since the 1960s there has been a steady increase in global average temperature (Figure 1), reaching almost 1ºC more than the beginning of the 20th century. In the early years of the current century the trend is worsening. The last 10 years have been the warmest since there are records, and the forecast is to continue increasing. Most experts agree that humans exert a direct impact on the heating process known as the greenhouse effect. The causes of this effect are some of gaseous components of the atmosphere, especially CO2, which has grown in parallel with rising temperatures, from about 300 ppm at the beginning of 20th century to nearly 400 ppm today. This CO2 and other gases as water vapour, methane and other exclusively anthropogenic absorb radiation and the result is that the atmosphere warms further.
Figure 1. Increase in average global temperature compared to the beginning of 20th century (from GISTEMP).
This global warming is particularly evident in the Arctic. The temperature increases are higher in northern latitudes, especially 60-70º N, where this past December 2015 (Figure 2) have raised to 9ºC above average in large areas of North America and Eurasia. This is called Polar Warming Amplification (PWA). The cause of this overheating in the Arctic respect of the rest of Earth is partly due to the loss of snow and ice (retroactive effect) because the largest area of land and water absorbs more solar energy than white ice (albedo effect), but also the PWA is partly due to the dynamic atmospheric transport, which transports heat energy from the clouds and subtropical regions to the north (Taylor et al 2013).
Figure 2. Thermal anomaly registered in December 2015 with respect to the average 1951-1980 (from GISTEMP).
Besides the consequences of this warming on the Arctic ice that we will comment below, another serious problem is the melting of permafrost, since then methane gas trapped under the frozen ground is released. This way, vast quantities of methane are released, and this greenhouse gas is contributing further to accelerate the global warming.
Less and less ice in the Arctic
Linear trends of sea ice extent and sea ice in the Arctic from 1979 to date are negative year after year, for any month is considered, but it is more clear by comparing Septembers, at the end of the summer when the ice is melting (Figure 3). Of the approximately 7 million km2 minimum in September (the maximum in March is about 16 million), about 100,000 km2 are melt per year, almost 9% every 10 years (Serreze et al 2007), so that there is now almost half ice than in 1979 (Figure 4).
Figure 3. Comparison of the extent of sea ice (in red): September 1979 and 2012 (from The Cryosphere Today).
Figure 4. Average monthly extension of Arctic sea ice since 1979 (Reeves et al 2013).
In addition to the reduction in surface ice, keep in mind the reduction in volume, representing now a third of what it was in September 1979.
There is a big difference between the different models for predicting the disappearance of Arctic sea ice. Half of them expect the total disappearance by September 2100. Predictions move since September 2040 the less optimistic until well past 2100 for the other (Serreze et al 2007).
Other problems resulting from the disappearance of sea ice are the ship traffic, which could shorten distances trips between the ports of northern countries, and on the other hand the exploitation of oilfields and other fossil fuels and minerals, since there is a large part of global reserves in the Arctic (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Left: forecast paths for open sea ships (blue) and for icebreakers (red) for 2040-2059. Right: Distribution of the potential major reserves of oil and gas (yellow) and licenses (red) and wells in operation or to operate (black). The dashed line indicates the limit of Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) declared by the Working Group of the Arctic Council (www.arctic-council.org). Figures from Reeves et al (2013).
Ecological consequences of the disappearance of the Arctic ice pack
There are many living beings linked to the ice. The polar bears roam on the Arctic ice, so we are feared for his fate. Many fish, seals and crustaceans (krill) form a food chain that starts from the algae that grow under the ice in a very consistent environment, rich in nutrients, especially favourable for marine life (Figure 6 A). Moreover, floating sea ice in summer is a good corridor for dispersion of terrestrial vertebrates (for instance arctic foxes) and plants.
The gradual disappearance of sea ice and warming in the Arctic coast involves a series of ecological imbalances (Figure 6 B). We see for example how walruses forced to remain grouped on the ground are more predisposed to disease transmission. The loss of sea ice diminishes dispersion by ice corridors and then the land populations are most isolated, thus gene flow is restricted. Polar bears and other predators that hunt on the sea ice have it much harder and their populations are at risk. Phytoplankton productivity decreases significantly, thereby reducing zooplankton, and then the whole food chain (fish, seals, etc.) is affected (Post et al 2013).
Figure 6. Ecological interactions influenced by sea ice. A: The distribution and seasonality of sea ice affects the abundance, distribution and interactions of the entire ecosystem in balance. B: The longest period without ice and less sea ice extent have disastrous consequences on the balance of the ecosystem (Post et al 2013).
The polar bear tries to survive
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is considered an endangered animal. There are only about 25,000 worldwide. The impact of climate change affects the exclusive habitat of polar regions and forecasts suggest that in a few years from now the ice of the Arctic will melt permanently and polar bears may become extinct because of warming area.
The polar bear is basically carnivorous, unlike others such as brown bears, and remains above the ice hunting seals. With the gradual disappearance of the ice it has more trouble finding preys, and some have begun to learn how to catch salmon rivers, as we see in the images (Figure 7).
Figure 7. White Bear dedicated to fishing salmons in order to survive (www.youtube.com/watch?v=9m_Q9Ojbcmw).
We have also seen groups of polar bears at sea fishing (see video) and dive emerging alternately as if they were dolphins or porpoises. Despite these small adaptations, the food is very low and it is clear that their populations are declining rapidly.
Orcas thrive north
The disappearance of the northern ice is a dramatic ecological change that is causing the disappearance of some species like the polar bear, but interestingly these imbalances benefit some other emerging species. This is the case of the killer whale (Orcinus orca), which is thriving more and more to the north (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Places (marked with numbers) of the Canadian Arctic where groups of orcas were repeatedly photographed between 2004 and 2009 (Young et al 2011).
Eskimo Inuit people live around the American Arctic (from Quebec to Alaska including Hudson Bay and adjacent islands) and the west coast of Greenland, and they are the first witnesses since the mid-twentieth century observing whales in their waters, unknown before. Moreover, in recent years scientists have made numerous orca’ sightings, they have been photographed individually (Young et al 2011), and their travels have been followed through bioacoustics (Ferguson et al 2010) and other techniques.
Figure 9. (Top): Narwhals with the characteristic great tusk, which gave rise to the myth of the unicorn. (Low): Group of orcas attacking narwhals cornered on the beach. Watch the video of PBS Nature.
For some years attacks by orcas on narwhals (as in Figure 9) have been observed repeatedly by Inuit Eskimos and studied in detail by several scientists. Laidre et al (2006) observed that before approaching whales, the narwhals tend to group, are more quiet and swim closer to the beach in shallow waters. During the attack, the narwhals disperse significantly but nevertheless mortality is very high. After predation, which can last several hours, oily stains are observed in sea surface, which come from fat of depredated narwhals (Figure 10).
Figure 10. Group of orcas surrounded by patches of oil on the sea surface from the fat of attacked narwhals (Laidre et al 2006).
Orcas’ attacks on narwhals are so common and effective that are beginning to affect the population. The effects are even worse in other cetaceans with smaller population such as whales of Greenland or bowhead (Balena mysticetus), which are now virtually extinct (Figure 11).
Figure 11. Scheme of preys’ proportions by a group of orcas from Hudson Bay (Ferguson et al 2010).
In conclusion, anthropogenic climate change is affecting the Arctic ecosystem severely (and all the other ecosystems), and although this problem is becoming known, effective policy measures to reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are so scarce that hardly will arrive in time. We are leading the planet Earth to a massive extinction of species and ecological changes ever seen in the history of humans.
The picture says it all: polar bear habitat is running out.
Arctic Council: http://www.arctic-council.org
Ferguson S.H., Higdon J.W. & Chmelnitsky E.G. (2010) The rise of killer whales as a major Arctic predator. In S.H. Ferguson, et al. (eds.): A little less Arctic: top predators in the world’s largest northern inland sea, Hudson Bay. Pp. 117–136. New York: Springer
GISTEMP, Goddard Institute for Space Studies Surface Temperature Analysis (NASA-GISS): http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/
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Welcome to my blog !
My idea is to write things related to life sciences, that is, biology, my area. For this reason I call the blog BIOS, meaning life in old greek. I mostly will discuss things related to various news related with biology, collecting information from different sites, and adding my humble point of view.
Maybe I will write also about other things that are not so “Bios” because at the end, everything is “life”, right?
Thanks if you read these comments and see you soon.