From Belugas to Brain Damage: The Effects of Climate Change on the Inuit

Belugas, Toxoplasmosis and the Inuit

Until recently, the Inuit had little reason to fear toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii which is carried by warm-blooded animals, most notably the house cat. While the parasite can infect many different animals, including humans, the common house cat is the only known definitive host, the only place where the parasite reaches maturity. Additionally, because Toxoplasma gondii is temperature sensitive, it does not survive well at either freezing temperatures or hotter temperatures, as with cooking or washing.

The Arctic Circle is a vast, cold, sparse habitat where few plants survive. Lichens grow slowly but keep the permafrost from melting. Trees remain dwarf-sized, regardless of age. In this area inhospitable to vegetation, humans have survived by being mostly carnivorous. Diets are protein oriented, with deer, fish, seals, whales, and other indigenous animals being the main dietary staples. These meat-based diets are only supplemented by whatever scarce greenery can be located.

Vegetation is either slow to grow or doesn’t grow due to the extremely cold temperatures in the area. Generally speaking, almost all the days in the Arctic Circle are below freezing with a high percentage of those days having temperatures less than zero degrees Fahrenheit. The highest recorded temperature has only been 58 degrees while the lowest recorded temperature has been minus 61 degrees. In order to survive these temperatures, the Inuit living in the region have had to exist on what has been available.

What has been available has been fish, hardy animals such as caribou, and aquatic creatures like seals and whales. One of the main whale staples of the Inuit has been the beluga whale. The beluga whale has been an important part of the Inuit’s diet for a very long time. The flesh can be dried and eaten later, or eaten fresh and raw.

Unfortunately, there is a new consideration. Climate change has allowed the parasite Toxoplasma gondii to survive in the Arctic. Between the importation of the house cat into the Arctic area and the change in climate which allows the parasite to survive, the Inuits are now faced with the concern that they may not only come into contact with the parasite, but contract the disease toxoplasmosis.

It appears that somehow the cat parasite has found its way from the newly regional cats into the water and has gone on to be hosted by the beluga whale. Of whales tested, at least 10 percent have been shown to have the parasite.

While several theories are in the works, it remains unknown just how these whales have acquired the parasitic infection. One of the theories is that the climate change has allowed Toxoplasma gondii to survive in these previously inhospitable conditions.

The problem arises when the northern people do not cook the meat from the beluga whales that they catch for food. Because they are not cooking the meat, there is no chance that the parasite is being killed; and, therefore, anyone eating the infected meat will also be ingesting Toxoplasma gondii and will be at risk for contracting toxoplasmosis.

Toxoplasmosis may not be of huge concern to those with intact and hearty immune systems, but to those with compromised systems, or to those who are pregnant, the disease toxoplasmosis may be of great concern. Some of the symptoms of toxoplasmosis include blurred or reduced vision, damage to organs such as the eyes, and even several types of brain damage.

All-in-all, it appears that the warming trend and climate change in the Arctic has affected more than the amount of snow or ice in the region. It is now affecting the basis for human life by allowing previously unknown parasites to survive in this harsh region. One of the main diet staples of the indigenous peoples may now need to be of concern for those not wishing to flirt with brain damage.

Who could have thought that the happy-faced beluga whales, the food source of the Inuits, may now contribute to their downfall?

By Dee Mueller

Sources:

The Arctic

Weather Base

CDC

Mayo Clinic