Biomagnification, also known as bioamplification or biological magnification, is the increasing concentration of a substance, such as a toxic chemical, in the tissues of tolerant organisms at successively higher levels in a food chain. This increase can occur as a result of:

  • Persistence – where the substance cannot be broken down by environmental processes
  • Food chain energetics – where the substance's concentration increases progressively as it moves up a food chain
  • Low or non-existent rate of internal degradation or excretion of the substance – mainly due to water-insolubility
The build up of toxins in a food chain
Biomagnification is the build up of toxins in a food chain. The DDT concentration is in parts per million. As the trophic level increases in a food chain, the amount of toxic build up increases. The x's represent the amount of toxic build up accumulating as the trophic level increases. Toxins build up in organism's fat and tissue. Predators accumulate higher toxins than prey.

Biological magnification often refers to the process whereby certain substances such as pesticides or heavy metals work their way into lakes, rivers and the ocean, and then move up the food chain in progressively greater concentrations as they are incorporated into the diet of aquatic organisms such as zooplankton, which in turn are eaten perhaps by fish, which then may be eaten by bigger fish, large birds, animals, or humans. The substances become increasingly concentrated in tissues or internal organs as they move up the chain. Bioaccumulants are substances that increase in concentration in living organisms as they take in contaminated air, water, or food because the substances are very slowly metabolized or excreted.

In biomagnification the concentration of the persistent toxins (crosses) increases higher up the food chain.
Bio-magnification in a pond ecosystem
In this scenario, a pond has been intoxicated. As we go further into the food chain, the toxin concentration increases, causing the top consumer to eventually live off intoxication.


Although sometimes used interchangeably with "bioaccumulation", an important distinction is drawn between the two, and with bioconcentration.

  • Bioaccumulation occurs within a trophic level, and is the increase in the concentration of a substance in certain tissues of organisms' bodies due to absorption from food and the environment.
  • Bioconcentration is defined as occurring when uptake from the water is greater than excretion.[1]

Thus, bioconcentration and bioaccumulation occur within an organism, and biomagnification occurs across trophic (food chain) levels.

Biodilution is also a process that occurs to all trophic levels in an aquatic environment; it is the opposite of biomagnification, thus when a pollutant gets smaller in concentration as it progresses up a food web.

Lipid, (lipophilic) or fat soluble substances cannot be diluted, broken down, or excreted in urine, a water-based medium, and so accumulate in fatty tissues of an organism, if the organism lacks enzymes to degrade them. When eaten by another organism, fats are absorbed in the gut, carrying the substance, which then accumulates in the fats of the predator. Since at each level of the food chain there is a lot of energy loss, a predator must consume many prey, including all of their lipophilic substances.

For example, though mercury is only present in small amounts in seawater, it is absorbed by algae (generally as methylmercury). Methyl-mercury is the most harmful variation of mercury. It is efficiently absorbed, but only very slowly excreted by organisms.[2] Bioaccumulation and bioconcentration result in buildup in the adipose tissue of successive trophic levels: zooplankton, small nekton, larger fish, etc. Anything which eats these fish also consumes the higher level of mercury the fish have accumulated. This process explains why predatory fish such as swordfish and sharks or birds like osprey and eagles have higher concentrations of mercury in their tissue than could be accounted for by direct exposure alone. For example, herring contains mercury at approximately 0.01 parts per million (ppm) and shark contains mercury at greater than 1 ppm.[3]

DDT is thought to biomagnify and biomagnification is one of the most significant reasons it was deemed harmful to the environment by the EPA and other organizations. DDT is stored in the fat of animals and takes many years to break down, and as the fat is consumed by predators, the amounts of DDT biomagnify. DDT is now a banned substance in many parts of the world.[4]

Current status

In a review, a large number of studies, Suedel et al.[5] concluded that although biomagnification is probably more limited in occurrence than previously thought, there is good evidence that DDT, DDE, PCBs, toxaphene, and the organic forms of mercury and arsenic do biomagnify in nature. For other contaminants, bioconcentration and bioaccumulation account for their high concentrations in organism tissues. More recently, Gray[6] reached a similar substances remaining in the organisms and not being diluted to non-threatening concentrations. The success of top predatory-bird recovery (bald eagles, peregrine falcons) in North America following the ban on DDT use in agriculture is testament to the importance of biomagnification.

Substances that biomagnify

There are two main groups of substances that biomagnify. Both are lipophilic and not easily degraded. Novel organic substances are not easily degraded because organisms lack previous exposure and have thus not evolved specific detoxification and excretion mechanisms, as there has been no selection pressure from them. These substances are consequently known as "persistent organic pollutants" or POPs.

Metals are not degradable because they are elements. Organisms, particularly those subject to naturally high levels of exposure to metals, have mechanisms to sequester and excrete metals. Problems arise when organisms are exposed to higher concentrations than usual, which they cannot excrete rapidly enough to prevent damage. Some persistent heavy metals are especially dangerous and harmful to the organism's reproductive system.

Novel organic substances

See also


  1. ^ Landrum, PF and SW Fisher, 1999. Influence of lipids on the bioaccumulation and trophic transfer of organic contaminants in aquatic organisms. Chapter 9 in MT Arts and BC Wainman. Lipids in fresh water ecosystems. Springer Verlag, New York.
  2. ^ Croteau, M., S. N. Luoma, and A. R Stewart. 2005. Trophic transfer of metals along freshwater food webs: Evidence of cadmium biomagnification in nature. Limnol. Oceanogr. 50 (5): 1511-1519.
  3. ^ EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 1997. Mercury Study Report to Congress. Vol. IV: An Assessment of Exposure to Mercury in the United States . EPA-452/R-97-006. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards and Office of Research and Development.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-08-12. Retrieved 2014-08-10.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ Suedel, B.C., Boraczek, J.A., Peddicord, R.K., Clifford, P.A. and Dillon, T.M., 1994. Trophic transfer and biomagnification potential of contaminants in aquatic ecosystems. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 136: 21–89.
  6. ^ Gray, J.S., 2002. Biomagnification in marine systems: the perspective of an ecologist. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 45: 46–52.

External links

  • Fisk AT, Hoekstra PF, Borga K,and DCG Muir, 2003. Biomagnification. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 46 (4): 522-524

β-Methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA, is a non-proteinogenic amino acid produced by cyanobacteria. BMAA is a neurotoxin and its potential role in various neurodegenerative disorders is the subject of scientific research.


Bioaccumulation is the gradual accumulation of substances, such as pesticides, or other chemicals in an organism. Bioaccumulation occurs when an organism absorbs a substance at a rate faster than that at which the substance is lost by catabolism and excretion. Thus, the longer the biological half-life of a toxic substance, the greater the risk of chronic poisoning, even if environmental levels of the toxin are not very high. Bioaccumulation, for example in fish, can be predicted by models. Hypotheses for molecular size cutoff criteria for use as bioaccumulation potential indicators are not supported by data. Biotransformation can strongly modify bioaccumulation of chemicals in an organism.Bioconcentration is a related but more specific term, referring to uptake and accumulation of a substance from water alone. By contrast, bioaccumulation refers to uptake from all sources combined (e.g. water, food, air, etc.).


Bioconcentration is the accumulation of a chemical in or on an organism when the source of chemical is solely water. Bioconcentration is a term that was created for use in the field of aquatic toxicology. Bioconcentration can also be defined as the process by which a chemical concentration in an aquatic organism exceeds that in water as a result of exposure to a waterborne chemical.There are several ways in which to measure and assess bioaccumulation and bioconcentration. These include: octanol-water partition coefficients (KOW), bioconcentration factors (BCF), bioaccumulation factors (BAF) and biota-sediment accumulation factor (BSAF). Each of these can be calculated using either empirical data or measurements as well as from mathematical models. One of these mathematical models is a fugacity-based BCF model developed by Don Mackay.Bioconcentration factor can also be expressed as the ratio of the concentration of a chemical in an organism to the concentration of the chemical in the surrounding environment. The BCF is a measure of the extent of chemical sharing between an organism and the surrounding environment.In surface water, the BCF is the ratio of a chemical's concentration in an organism to the chemical's aqueous concentration. BCF is often expressed in units of liter per kilogram (ratio of mg of chemical per kg of organism to mg of chemical per liter of water). BCF can simply be an observed ratio, or it can be the prediction of a partitioning model. A partitioning model is based on assumptions that chemicals partition between water and aquatic organisms as well as the idea that chemical equilibrium exists between the organisms and the aquatic environment in which it is found


Biodegradation is the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi.

Coal ash basin

A coal ash basin or landfill, as the name implies, is an excavated basin for the disposal of coal ash to prevent its release into the atmosphere. Although the use of basins decreases the amount of airborne pollutants, basins pose serious health risks for the surrounding environment. Chemicals contained within samples of coal that do not burn are magnified in concentration within the coal ash. In general, coal ash basins are not lined landfills, and therefore chemicals in the ash can leach into the groundwater, lakes, rivers, and other freshwater sources, accumulating in the biomass of the system. Because of biomagnification, the concentration of these chemicals in animals will increase up a food chain (similarly to mercury in tuna). This can be very dangerous to humans that consume plant or animal life that has been affected by the coal basin. Some substances that can be commonly found in coal ash are arsenic, selenium, cadmium, nickel, lead, and mercury. Many of these, especially heavy metals, can have negative effects on humans when ingested. There are some initiatives, such as the one made by Duke Energy in 2015 to excavate existing coal basins to reduce the environmental effects of coal-burning power facilities on the surrounding environment.

Environmental toxicology

Environmental toxicology is a multidisciplinary field of science concerned with the study of the harmful effects of various chemical, biological and physical agents on living organisms. Ecotoxicology is a subdiscipline of environmental toxicology concerned with studying the harmful effects of toxicants at the population and ecosystem levels.

Rachel Carson is considered the mother of environmental toxicology, as she made it a distinct field within toxicology in 1962 with the publication of her book Silent Spring, which covered the effects of uncontrolled pesticide use. Carson's book was based extensively on a series of reports by Lucille Farrier Stickel on the ecological effects of the pesticide DDT.Organisms can be exposed to various kinds of toxicants at any life cycle stage, some of which are more sensitive than others. Toxicity can also vary with the organism's placement within its food web. Bioaccumulation occurs when an organism stores toxicants in fatty tissues, which may eventually establish a trophic cascade and the biomagnification of specific toxicants. Biodegradation releases carbon dioxide and water as by-products into the environment. This process is typically limited in areas affected by environmental toxicants.

Harmful effects of such chemical and biological agents as toxicants from pollutants, insecticides, pesticides, and fertilizers can affect an organism and its community by reducing its species diversity and abundance. Such changes in population dynamics affect the ecosystem by reducing its productivity and stability.

Although legislation implemented since the early 1970s had intended to minimize harmful effects of environmental toxicants upon all species, McCarty (2013) has warned that "longstanding limitations in the implementation of the simple conceptual model that is the basis of current aquatic toxicity testing protocols" may lead to an impending environmental toxicology "dark age".

Fish oil

Fish oil is oil derived from the tissues of oily fish. Fish oils contain the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), precursors of certain eicosanoids that are known to reduce inflammation in the body and improve hypertriglyceridemia. There has been a great deal of controversy in recent years about the role of fish oil in cardiovascular disease, with recent meta-analyses reaching different conclusions about its potential impact. The most promising evidence supports supplementation for prevention of cardiac death.Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids have also been studied in a wide variety of other conditions such as clinical depression, anxiety, cancer, and macular degeneration, yet their benefit in these conditions has also not been verified.The fish used as sources do not actually produce omega-3 fatty acids, but instead accumulate them by consuming either microalgae or prey fish that have accumulated omega-3 fatty acids.

Fatty predatory fish like sharks, swordfish, tilefish, and albacore tuna may be high in omega-3 fatty acids, but due to their position at the top of the food chain, these species may also accumulate toxic substances through biomagnification. For this reason, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting consumption (especially for women of childbearing age) of certain (predatory) fish species (e.g. albacore tuna, shark, king mackerel, tilefish and swordfish) due to high levels of the toxic contaminant mercury. Dioxin, PCBs and chlordane are also present. Fish oil is used as a component in aquaculture feed. More than 50 percent of the world's fish oil used in aquaculture feed is fed to farmed salmon.Marine and freshwater fish oil vary in contents of arachidonic acid, EPA and DHA. The various species range from lean to fatty and their oil content in the tissues has been shown to vary from 0.7% to 15.5%. They also differ in their effects on organ lipids. Studies have revealed that there is no relation between total fish intake or estimated omega−3 fatty acid intake from all fish, and serum omega−3 fatty acid concentrations. Only fatty fish intake, particularly salmonid, and estimated EPA + DHA intake from fatty fish has been observed to be significantly associated with increase in serum EPA + DHA.

Food chain

A food chain is a linear network of links in a food web starting from producer organisms (such as grass or trees which use radiation from the Sun to make their food) and ending at apex predator species (like grizzly bears or killer whales), detritivores (like earthworms or woodlice), or decomposer species (such as fungi or bacteria). A food chain also shows how the organisms are related with each other by the food they eat. Each level of a food chain represents a different trophic level. A food chain differs from a food web, because the complex network of different animals' feeding relations are aggregated and the chain only follows a direct, linear pathway of one animal at a time. Natural interconnections between food chains make it a food web.

A common metric used to the quantify food web trophic structure is food chain length. In its simplest form, the length of a chain is the number of links between a trophic consumer and the base of the web and the mean chain length of an entire web is the arithmetic average of the lengths of all chains in a food web.Many food webs have a keystone species (Such as Sharks) . A keystone species is a species that has a large impact on the surrounding environment and can directly affect the food chain. If this keystone species dies off it can set the entire food chain off balance. Keystone species keep herbivores from depleting all of the foliage in their environment and preventing a mass extinction.Food chains were first introduced by the Arab scientist and philosopher Al-Jahiz in the 10th century and later popularized in a book published in 1927 by Charles Elton, which also introduced the food web concept.

Green waste

Green waste, also known as "biological waste," is any organic waste that can be composted. It is most usually composed of refuse from gardens such as grass clippings or leaves, and domestic or industrial kitchen wastes. Green waste does not include things such dried leaves, pine straw, or hay. Such materials are rich in carbon and considered "brown wastes," while green wastes contain high in concentrations of nitrogen. Green waste can be used to increase the efficiency of many composting operations and can be added to soil to sustain local nutrient cycling.

Guadalupe watershed

The Guadalupe watershed consists of 170 square miles (400 km2) of land within northern California's Santa Clara County. This watershed is owned and managed by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. The surface runoff from this area drains into the various rivers (namely the Guadalupe), streams, reservoirs or other bodies of water which all eventually gets carried into the San Francisco Bay (indicated below, with surrounding counties in red). Essentially, all the water from the creeks and rivers that make up the Guadalupe watershed, including water from storm drains, flows into the Guadalupe River, and then flows downstream into the San Francisco Bay at the Alviso Slough in Alviso. The Guadalupe watershed's main tributaries include Los Gatos Creek, Trout Creek, Hendrys Creek, Ross Creek, Pheasant Creek, Rincon Creek, Herbert Creek, and Golf Creek. Six major reservoirs exist in the watershed: Calero Reservoir on Arroyo Calero, Guadalupe Reservoir on Guadalupe Creek, Almaden Reservoir on Los Alamitos Creek, Vasona Reservoir, Lexington Reservoir, and Lake Elsman on Los Gatos Creek.

The area covered by the Guadalupe River and its tributaries spreads over the neighboring cities of San Jose, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Campbell, and Santa Clara.

Index of conservation articles

This is an index of conservation topics. It is an alphabetical index of articles relating to conservation biology and conservation of the natural environment.

List of environmental issues

This is an alphabetical list of environmental issues, harmful aspects of human activity on the biophysical environment. They are loosely divided into causes, effects and mitigation, noting that effects are interconnected and can cause new effects.

Mercury in fish

Fish and shellfish concentrate mercury in their bodies, often in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organomercury compound. Fish products have been shown to contain varying amounts of heavy metals, particularly mercury and fat-soluble pollutants from water pollution. Species of fish that are long-lived and high on the food chain, such as marlin, tuna, shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish (Gulf of Mexico) contain higher concentrations of mercury than others.Mercury is known to bioaccumulate in humans, so bioaccumulation in seafood carries over into human populations, where it can result in mercury poisoning. Mercury is dangerous to both natural ecosystems and humans because it is a metal known to be highly toxic, especially due to its ability to damage the central nervous system. In human-controlled ecosystems of fish, usually done for market production of wanted seafood species, mercury clearly rises through the food chain via fish consuming small plankton, as well as through non-food sources such as underwater sediment.The presence of mercury in fish can be a particular health concern for women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children.


Mirex is an organochloride that was commercialized as an insecticide and later banned because of its impact on the environment. This white crystalline odorless solid is a derivative of cyclopentadiene. It was popularized to control fire ants but by virtue of its chemical robustness and lipophilicity it was recognized as a bioaccumulative pollutant. The spread of the red imported fire ant was encouraged by the use of Mirex, which also kills native ants that are highly competitive with the fire ants. The United States Environmental Protection Agency prohibited its use in 1976. It is prohibited by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances

Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs) are a class of compounds that have high resistance to degradation from abiotic and biotic factors, high mobility in the environment and high toxicity. Because of these factors PBTs have been observed to have a high order of bioaccumulation and biomagnification, very long retention times in various media, and widespread distribution across the globe. Majority of PBTs in the environment are either created through industry or are unintentional byproducts.

Predatory fish

Predatory fish are fish that prey upon other fish or animals. Some predatory fish include perch, muskie, pike, walleye and salmon.

Levels of large predatory fish in the global oceans were estimated to be about 10% of their pre-industrial levels by 2003. Large predatory fish are most at risk of extinction; there was a disproportionate level of large predatory fish extinctions during the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago. Creation of marine reserves has been found to restore populations of large predatory fish such as the Serranidae — groupers and sea bass.Predatory fish switch between types of prey in response to variations in their abundance. Such changes in preference are disproportionate and are selected for as evolutionarily efficient. Predatory fish may become a pest if they are introduced into an ecosystem in which they become a new top predator. An example, which has caused much trouble in Maryland and Florida, is the snakehead fish.Predatory fish such as sharks, mahi-mahi, billfish, and tuna form a part of the human diet, but they tend to concentrate significant quantities of mercury in their bodies if they are high in the food chain, especially as apex predators, due to biomagnification.Predators are an important factor to consider in managing fisheries, and methods for doing so are available and used in some places.

Productivity (ecology)

In ecology, productivity refers to the rate of generation of biomass in an ecosystem. It is usually expressed in units of mass per unit surface (or volume) per unit time, for instance grams per square metre per day (g m−2 d−1). The mass unit may relate to dry matter or to the mass of carbon generated. Productivity of autotrophs such as plants is called primary productivity, while that of heterotrophs such as animals is called secondary productivity.

The Voyage of the Odyssey

The Voyage of the Odyssey was a 5-year program conducted by oceanographic research and education non-profit Ocean Alliance, which collected the first baseline data set on contaminants in the world’s oceans. It was launched from San Diego in March 2000, and ended five and a half years later in Boston, August 2005.In a 1979 National Geographic magazine article Ocean Alliance founder and president Dr. Roger Payne predicted that toxic pollution would replace the harpoon as the next greatest threat to whales. Recognizing the stark lack of data on the subject, Roger set his organisation Ocean Alliance with the task of obtaining a global baseline data set on contaminants.After years of planning and fund-raising, the program was finally ready to launch in 2000. In the executive summary of the project, Roger stated that, ‘The Voyage of the Odyssey has proven irrefutably that ocean life is becoming polluted to unacceptable levels by metals and human-made contaminants.’

The focus of the program was on Sperm whales, a cosmopolitan species found in every major ocean. As long-lived apex predators, Sperm whales represent a useful bioindicator of health in the marine ecosystem in a toxicological context, owing to the effects of three key processes: bioaccumulation, biomagnification and the generation effect. Sadly, these three processes also make Sperm whales, and other apex predators, at great risk from toxic pollution. As mammalian apex predators that nurse their young with milk, they are also relatively similar to us, and thus are seen as the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ regarding humanities relationship with the oceans.

The program also had a robust educational and outreach component. In every country they visited, Odyssey crew members met with government leaders, students, teachers and journalists-many of whom kept promoting ocean health after the Odyssey departed for its next research location. The program was also the focus of a major online diary & educational webseries through American broadcaster PBS produced by Genevieve & Chris Johnson.

Aside from collecting the first baseline data set on contaminants in the world’s oceans, the program was witness to a number of other successes, innovations and firsts. These include:

uncovering illegal shark finning operations

documenting the use of massive drift nets in the Mediterranean

helping to create a 1.2 million square-mile marine mammal sanctuary in Papua New Guinea waters

made incredibly rare sightings of a live Longman’s beaked whale

Tubifex tubifex

Tubifex tubifex, also called the sludge worm, or sewage worm, is a species of tubificid segmented worm that inhabits the sediments of lakes and rivers on several continents. Tubifex probably includes several species, but distinguishing between them is difficult because the reproductive organs, commonly used in species identification, are resorbed after mating, and because the external characteristics of the worm vary with changes in salinity. These worms ingest sediments, selectively digest bacteria, and absorb molecules through their body walls.

Micro-plastic ingestion by Tubifex worms acts a significant risk for trophic transfer and biomagnification of microplastics up the aquatic food chain. The worms can survive with little oxygen by waving hemoglobin-rich tail ends to exploit all available oxygen, and can exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen through their thin skins, in a manner similar to frogs. They can also survive in areas heavily polluted with organic matter that almost no other species can endure. By forming a protective cyst and lowering its metabolic rate, T. tubifex can survive drought and food shortage. Encystment may also function in the dispersal of the worm.

They usually inhabit the bottom sediments of lakes, rivers, and occasionally sewer lines and outlets.

Food webs
Example webs
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Other components
Related topics


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