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Scientists now have a new tool to monitor Arctic wildlife for chronic oil

Scientists now have a new tool to monitor Arctic wildlife for chronic oil


When we think of the Arctic, we often picture a barren landscape covered with snow and vast expanses icy ocean. This is far from what the Canadian Arctic looks like today. With approximately 150,000 people call it home.This region is definitely not barren.

The Arctic is warming Faster than anywhere else on Earth. This dramatic rise in temperature impacts wildlife, plants, humans, and causes less sea ice which is used year-round by many predators and hunters.

The North is becoming more accessible than ever due to the loss of sea ice. This increases the likelihood of major oil spillages as the number of ship and tanker traffic increases. These spills expose the wildlife to new contaminants, including polycyclic aromatic compounds — the main contaminant in oil spills — which can cause cancer in birds.

It is difficult for wildlife researchers to monitor the impact of these contaminants on wildlife due to the increasing number of them. After studying ways to monitor the quantity and variety of contaminants in Arctic wildlife, we have created a new tool — ToxChip — to analyze changes in the DNA of animals exposed to oil and solve this challenge.

Oil exploration and extraction are increasing

Shipping traffic increased from 1995 to 2015. Nearly tripled in the Canadian Arctic due to depleting sea ice. Newly accessible shipping routes, such as the Northern Sea Route, are now available Reduce transit time between East Asia & Western Europe by approximately 10 days.


The Exxon Valdez tanker discharged over 37,000 tonnes of crude oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, killing thousands of birds and other wildlife.
(AP Photo/John Gaps I)

As the Arctic contains around 13 per cent of the world’s unexploited oilThis precious resource is in the hands of many. Oil spillages will only increase if more Arctic shipping and extraction takes place.

The infamous Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 discharged nearly 37,000 tonnes of crude oil into Alaska’s southern coast, Over 30,000 birds killed.

Recently, a A fuel tank at a power station released 20,000 tonnes diesel into the Ambarnaya River2020 in Russia

The main compounds found within oil and petroleum products are called polycyclic aroma compounds (or PACs). Do not harm birds in the marine environment. These chemicals can get into wildlife and plants by being released as a result of spills or exhaust. They can easily attach to Animal fat can build up over their lifetimes and can be toxic to their health..

Birds can reveal environmental contaminants

Seabirds are particularly susceptible to oily effects because they rely on the water for their food. Oil can coat a bird’s feathers, This makes them unable fly or regulate their temperature..

A bird with oil-covered wings
Oil-covered feathered birds are unable fly or regulate their body temperatures.

Birds also clean their feathers using their beaks, which introduces oils into their digestive systems. Birds can also be affected by oil and petroleum products This can lead to stunted limbs, decreased breeding and population declines..

There are actually long-term effects that can be observed in ducks. The survival rates of spilled birds were lower than non-oiled birds for at most 11 years..

New technologies can be used to track contaminants

Each gene in an animal’s DNAEach gene contributes to a specific function. Some genes are responsible for regulating an animal’s metabolism, while others take care of suppressing tumours. We can determine which biological processes have been affected if a particular gene is induced by oil or another contaminant.

Changes in an animal’s gene expression — ability to convert DNA instructions into functional products, like protein — can tell us a lot about How it responds to a chemical, or group thereof. Current methods for measuring contaminants in animalsThese tests are costly and rely heavily on the use of lab animals. They can only measure the effects one contaminant at once.

ToxChip is a tool that examines the effects contaminants have on DNA levels in sensitive genes. It can detect changes in seabird genes in response to a contaminant quickly. The ToxChip is customizable to suit the needs of specific species, contaminants, or genes.

We have so far developed two ToxChips, one for thick-billed murre and one for black guillemot. These seabirds nest in rocky cliffs, which are also their breeding grounds.

The guillemot doesn’t stray far from its colony and feeds on fish close to the shore. The thick-billed marsh murre, on other hand, is known to be able to travel far from the colony. To catch their prey, they dive deep into the sea to capture it.

Both species are not in danger and their colonies can reach the million mark, making it possible for researchers to determine the extent of their threat. Which contaminants are affecting birds. Because these birds are dependent on open water food sources, oil spillages could quickly cause serious damage to the entire colony.

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Smoke billows from industrial site in the distance.

ToxChips can also be used to quantify the potential irreversible or sub-lethal damage that may have occurred after an oil spillage. Different types can tell us where they came from. PACs that are derived from forest fires may have a different chemical makeup than those from oil spillages. This ToxChip data can be used to determine the source of toxicities to seabirds.

A recent ToxChip use revealed this. We were able determine the likely effects of an oil seep off the coast of Nunavut.

A faster, cheaper, and more affordable solution

This tool has many future potential applications. It can help look at the effects of pesticides on bullfrog’s DNA or the impact of plastic pollution on the biological processes in pink salmon and so on. ToxChips for specific species can help to shape evidence-based policies or monitoring initiatives that would limit vessel trafic in endangered bird areas during the breeding seasons.

People who rely on local food are particularly vulnerable to contaminants in wildlife. These tools can help those living in the Arctic to determine if the animals that they depend on have been exposed.

They can be used in an emergency response to an oil leak. Oil can persist long after clean-up crews have removed visible oil from the environment. ToxChips will help to determine if seabirds remain exposed to oil polluting chemicals.

People are using high pressured hoses to wash oil from rocks on a beach.
Despite all efforts to clean up oil spillages, the toxic chemicals and components can remain in the environment.
(AP Photo/Rob Stapleton, File)

Although the tool is still in its infancy, It has been createdFor two seabird speciesIt is currently being used to evaluate gene expression changes following a large oil spillage or at an old military base with known contamination.

ToxChip projects make contaminant testing cheaper, faster, more accurate, and less dependent upon lab animals. It could help reduce the effects of oil pollution on animals in future.

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