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Reactions To Environmental Change Caused By Humans

Understanding how animal populations react to human influences like climate change, overexploitation, the introduction of non-native species, and habitat degradation is the most significant task confronting biologists today.

Although it is well recognized that environmental disturbance alters the quantity and distribution of species, populations also exhibit phenotypic reactions to environmental change, which often results in a loss of biodiversity.

It is possible to learn how changed patterns of selection impact both individual fitness and population survival by tracking these phenotypic responses and identifying whether they are caused by genetic, environmental, or both sources.

The reaction of sensory systems to environmental disturbance, however, is an essential step that is missed when examining the connections between the environment, phenotypic change, and the fitness of an individual organism.

The essential connection between an organism's physiology and behavior and its physical and biological environs is provided by sensory systems.

Since sensory systems regulate species-specific responses that impact individual fitness, they are not only directly (and indirectly) affected by environmental change.

Degradation Of Aquatic Ecosystems And Sensory Disruption

Localized activities such as eutrophication, sedimentation, and metal and chemical pollution from agricultural, pharmaceutical, and industrial businesses degrade coastal aquatic environments. Coastal ecosystems are sensitive to global environmental disruptions such as ocean and freshwater acidification and increasing water temperatures.

Ecotoxicological studies show pollutants may alter fish sensory functions. Common detergent surfactants (e.g., linear alkylbenzene sulfonate or LAS) harm the gustatory receptors of yellow bullhead catfish (Ictalurus natalis) after a few hours of contact, before histological tissue damage is obvious.

In whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), sodium lauryl sulfonate (SLS) reduces olfactory bulb responsiveness. Whitefish were attracted to sublethal SLS dosages but not high concentrations, indicating that SLS lowers chemoreceptor activity at sublethal levels but prevents the response at high doses.

Studies using Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus) have shown the behavioral effects of chemosensory disruption. Charr that were attracted to conspecific odor exhibited decreased or diminished preferences, depending on the dosage and duration of LAS exposure.

For example, surfactants may impact shoaling behavior even at low doses; for example, rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) exposed to 0.5 μgl1 of 4-nonylphenol (4-NP) for 1 h changed their association preference, whereas larger concentrations (1–2 μgl1) led non-dosed fish to shun treated conspecifics.

Short-term exposure to a chemical pollutant did not impair this species' olfactory sensitivity, but it did disrupt its social behavior, which affected foraging efficiency and predator protection.

Several huge industrial chimneys exhuming huge smoke
Several huge industrial chimneys exhuming huge smoke

Freshwater Acidification And Chemosensory Impairment

The burning of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, which interact with water to form acidic precipitation (acid rain). Acidification affects freshwater fishes' capacity to react to alarm signals, which signal predation danger.

Alarm signals are skin compounds secreted during a predator assault that evoke an unlearned anti-predator reaction in conspecifics. Low pH reduces the capacity of fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas), finescale dace (Phoxinus neogaeus), pumpkinseed fish (Lepomis gibbosus), rainbow trout (O. mykiss), and brook charr (Salvelinus fontinalis) to perceive and react to alarm signals from conspecifics (pH 6.0–6.1).

The pH of minnow skin extract also affects the alarm response, showing that even slightly acidic circumstances degrade the alarm molecule rather than affect the fish's olfactory sensitivity. A reciprocal transplant experiment showed no long-term impact of acidic environments on the generation or detection of alarm signals in Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar).

Thus, acidic circumstances induce a reversible and short-term loss in olfactory sensitivity or a chemical disruption of the alarm signal, indicating that these effects are environmental, not physiological or behavioral.

Alarm cues include nitrogen oxides such as hypoxanthine-3-N-oxide, which converts to 6,8-dioxypurine when treated with acid. This may explain the temporary lack of alarm function. Loss of alarm capabilities affects predator-prey interactions, particularly population responses to introduced new predators.

Ocean Acidification And Chemosensory Impairment

Recent research on sensory system responses to environmental change has focused on marine settings and ocean acidification. Ocean acidification happens when carbon dioxide from fossil fuels interacts with water to generate carbonic acid.

Hydrogen ions combine with carbonate ions and aragonite to create bicarbonate. This reduces the pH of ocean water and carbonate, which coral reefs and animals need to survive.

Munday et al. showed that ocean acidification may reduce olfactory discrimination for favored settling locations. Under controlled settings (seawater pH of 8.15), orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula) favored tropical flora signals to unpleasant oils.

Under expected acidification circumstances (pH 7.8), larvae demonstrated a robust reaction to unpleasant vegetation.

SEM showed no difference in the surface structure of the olfactory epithelium in low pH-reared fish, suggesting that behavioral changes were mediated by induced changes in the transmission of chemosensory signals (via olfactory receptor cells) rather than changes in the olfactory system's gross morphology.

Disruption Of Learning Processes - Olfactory And Visual Cues

Experience with predator olfactory cues is one of the most basic ways fish may learn to identify new predators, enabling them to build an anti-predator reaction to previously unknown or low-risk signals.

Both marine and freshwater fishes conditioned with chemical cues (e.g., a new predator's odor) and alarm signals fail to learn a response to acidic predators.

Juvenile rainbow trout (O. mykiss) learnt to distinguish a new predator odor regardless of water pH, but the acquired response was only preserved when the pH remained constant between the learning event and future chemical cue exposures. This impaired responsiveness to alarm signals imposes considerable survival costs, even after short-lived (24 h) downpour events that generate a fast reduction in stream pH. (0.68 pH units).

Acidification affects visual risk assessment. In a similar experiment, baby damselfish (Pomacentrus amboinensis) were exposed to visual signals from a predator of coral reef fishes, the adult spiny damselfish (Acanthochromis polyacanthus).

Pomacentrus amboinensis showed anti-predator actions against A. polyacanthus at all treatment concentrations except the highest concentration (850 atm), where they failed to reduce foraging behavior, activity levels, and area utilization.

Acidification alters predation risk assessment through visual and olfactory cues, suggesting neuronal (afferent) circuits are involved, not peripheral sense organs. Further research found that elevated CO2 levels diminish the key flicker fusion threshold of spiny damselfish retinas, a visual feature that enables animals to follow moving stimuli, presumably vital for fleeing predators. Gabazine restored retinal function, demonstrating the role of GABAA receptors in behavior.

Ocean Acidification And Auditory Impairment

Most marine creatures react to auditory stimuli underwater, and acidification may impair auditory physiology and behavior. There is no evidence on how acidification affects marine animal hearing, but it does affect bony fish hearing.

The inner ear of bony fishes includes otoliths, thick carbonate ear bones. CaCO3 concretions aid in sound sensing (particle acceleration) and direction.

Otoliths are vulnerable to the decreased availability of carbonate ions in low pH seawater or to variations in bicarbonate and carbonate ion concentrations produced by acid-base regulation in fish exposed to high CO2 levels.

Sea bass larvae (Atractoscion nobilis), clownfish (A. percula) larvae, juvenile walleye pollock (Theragra chalcogramma), cobia (Rachycentron canadum) larvae, cod (Gadus morhua) larvae, juvenile sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus), mahi-mahi (Coryphaena hippurus) larvae, and juvenile sea bass.

The otoliths of juvenile spiny damselfish (Acanthochromis polyacanthus), juvenile clownfish (A. percula), Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) larvae, and juvenile scup (Stenotomus chrysops) showed no size differences at increased CO2, while marine medaka larvae (Oryzias melastigma) had smaller otoliths. Deposition and chemical composition of fish otoliths are dependent on CO2 levels, and the impacts may be variable (depending on ocean acidification circumstances), species-specific, and sensitive to research length.

Noise Pollution And Hearing Impairment

Human-generated sound is a relatively recent contribution to the aquatic soundscape, driven by shipping, pile piling, seismic surveys, explosions, sonar, deep-sea mining operations, dredging, and motor-powered leisure and commercial equipment. These noises cause behavioral responses and alterations in many aquatic animals, population fluctuations, and even physical harm.

The noise level in the water is related to the world economy, where shipping accounts for 90% of international commerce, and it will continue to rise as the ocean gets more industrialized. There are several outstanding reviews on the impacts of aquatic noise on marine animals, bony fish, and invertebrates.

Aquatic creatures' hearing range and sensitivity vary. Most fishes hear between 50 Hz and 5 kHz, whereas marine mammals hear between 1 and 150 kHz. Aquatic invertebrates can probably only hear low-frequency noises, but this is unknown.

Sea turtles have a maximal sensitivity of 500 Hz, but nothing is known about other marine reptiles. The temporal, spatial, and frequency signatures of anthropogenic noise influence each taxon differently.

Shipping noise involves mostly low-frequency components (<1,000 Hz) and may be more harmful to creatures with a peak sensitivity in this range, including bony fishes and invertebrates.

Degraded Optical Habitats And Behavior

Agriculture, forestry, urbanization, and resource exploitation may impact water quality, such as increasing turbidity, which affects behavior and fitness. Vision helps aquatic creatures locate food, choose mates, and escape predators.

Changes in water quality may affect population survival, species composition, and ecosystem biodiversity. Light attenuates with depth based on water absorbance and the amount of dissolved organic matter, phytoplankton, and particulate matter.

How light is dispersed and absorbed depends on habitat disturbance. Soil erosion causes suspended particles, which scatter light, whereas eutrophication increases algal load and boosts light absorption with depth.

Changes in the optical characteristics of water may cause behavioral modifications, especially in freshwater ecosystems where light conditions are more dynamic than in marine or coastal habitats. Increased turbidity decreases pike (Esox Lucius) predators' response distance but increases roach (Rutilus rutilus) prey's escape distance, showing that visual range alterations affect predator-prey interactions.

Shoaling's anti-predator effects are weakened under murky circumstances, when shoals are less cohesive and individuals behave more like lone fish. Spectral composition variations alter shoaling behavior.

Western rainbowfish (Melanotaenia australis) in organic-rich settings (which absorb short wavelength light) shoal wider apart than those under full spectrum illumination. In this research, rainbowfish enhanced the area and brightness of their color to sustain visual communication among conspecifics.

Adaptive Evolution Of Sensory Systems

Environmental circumstances (predation danger, habitat structure) may strongly select animal sensory systems. Threespine sticklebacks (G. aculeatus) in diverse aquatic environments illustrate evolutionary diversification within a species.

Differences in the mechanosensory lateral line system of lake-dwelling sticklebacks are highly heritable (genetic). Sticklebacks inhabit lakes with varying photic conditions, but their visual pigment protein (opsin) sequences are restricted, with no amino acid variations in functionally significant tuning sites.

Adaptive divergence of the visual system has occurred between marine and freshwater populations due to changes in opsin gene expression connected to marine sticklebacks' adoption of freshwater settings. Human influences, like eutrophication, may change sensory-mediated processes of selection; turbidity relaxes color-mediated partner choice, leading to a breakdown in assortative mating and a loss of species diversity.

While the genetic basis of other senses outside vision is unknown, it is expected that they will respond quickly to human perturbations. Sensory pollution, such as light and sound, may rapidly evolve physiological and behavioral features that rely on sensory system responses.

Part of an ocean with lots of debris in it
Part of an ocean with lots of debris in it

Plasticity In Sensory Systems

Plasticity in animal sensory systems may affect fitness and selection. Fishes' uncertain CNS development may provide them an environmental advantage.

Fishes' retinal morphology varies throughout life history stages, and their peripheral auditory frequency sensitivity fluctuates seasonally during reproduction. Gymnotiform fishes, like Brachyhypopomus gauderio, vary electrocommunication signals according to sex, bodily condition, and social experience.

Freshwater threespine sticklebacks (G. aculeatus) have minimal flexibility in the expression of their opsin genes, although bluefin killifish (Lucania goodei) show fast (after 1–3 days) alterations in opsin expression reacting to illumination changes (clear water vs. tea-stained treatments).

Shifts in opsin expression and chromatophore utilization (vitamin A1:A2 ratios) let fish adjust to developmental and life cycle phases.

The lateral line system may be plastic in response to environmental fluctuations. Exposure to changed water flows may affect the number of neuromasts (cells that sense water motion) in rainbowfish (M. australis).

Understanding the flexibility of sensory systems like the mechanosensory lateral line is critical for regulating how fish adapt to physical hydrodynamic changes in the environment, such as changed migratory patterns due to dam building. We understand remarkably little about the significance of fast evolutionary change and phenotypic plasticity in aiding species' responses to human effects in aquatic systems, despite multiple studies indicating disturbance of sensory systems and related behaviors.

Sensory Switching Under Environmental Change

Sensory switching, or compensation, occurs when animals depend on alternate sensory modalities owing to information constraint, sensory masking (e.g., turbidity and background noise), or injured sense organs. Sensory compensation is a sort of plasticity that enables people to transition between modalities and get more information.

Female threespine sticklebacks (G. aculeatus) use visual cues in clear water but smell signals in murky water. Female size preferences rely on available sensory signals, indicating that eutrophication might change courting displays.

Some fish travel across water sources of varied salinity, allowing researchers to explore whether individuals use distinct sensory modalities to maintain behaviors like shoal cohesiveness. The Pacific blue-eye (Pseudomugil signifer) reacts to chemical signals from conspecifics and forms tighter shoals in freshwater.

People Also Ask

What Are Examples Of Environmental Change?

Examples of these environmental changes on a global scale include climate change, freshwater shortages, biodiversity loss (which affects how ecosystems operate), and fisheries fatigue.

What Are Two Types Of Environmental Change?

Both systemic changes that affect the main geosphere-biosphere systems worldwide and cumulative changes, which are the result of the accumulation of localized changes on a global scale, are considered to be examples of global environmental change.

What Are The Effects Of Environmental Change?

Droughts that are more frequent and extreme, storms, heat waves, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and warmer seas may all directly injure animals, ruin the habitats they rely on for survival, and have a disastrous impact on people's way of life and communities. Dangerous weather occurrences are increasing in frequency or severity as climate change becomes worse.

How Is Environmental Change Beneficial?

The primary advantages of climate change are a reduction in the number of fatalities caused by cold weather, decreased expenditures on energy, increased crop yields, and maybe an increase in species variety.


There is evidence that various environmental disturbances, with certain disruptors influencing species-specific behavior, may interfere with aquatic vertebrate and invertebrate sensory systems. Because species may react differently or in opposition to one another (or show no overt change in behavior), it makes it difficult to forecast and manage these consequences at the community level. This results in changed ecological interactions, such as predator-prey relationships.

Although it is unlikely, we propose that major insights will be acquired when the sensory signals driving a particular fitness-related behavior are understood. In certain cases, such as the impact of ocean acidification on olfactory discrimination and predator detection, the consequences of human-induced environmental change on sensory systems are reasonably thoroughly investigated.

Research in this field has shown that altered GABAA receptor activity in the brain accounts for at least part of these behavioral deficits. But since this study is still in its early stages, it's also likely that additional neurotransmitters or neural pathways are also impacted but have not yet been identified.

About The Authors

Suleman Shah

Suleman Shah - Suleman Shah is a researcher and freelance writer. As a researcher, he has worked with MNS University of Agriculture, Multan (Pakistan) and Texas A & M University (USA). He regularly writes science articles and blogs for science news website immersse.com and open access publishers OA Publishing London and Scientific Times. He loves to keep himself updated on scientific developments and convert these developments into everyday language to update the readers about the developments in the scientific era. His primary research focus is Plant sciences, and he contributed to this field by publishing his research in scientific journals and presenting his work at many Conferences. Shah graduated from the University of Agriculture Faisalabad (Pakistan) and started his professional carrier with Jaffer Agro Services and later with the Agriculture Department of the Government of Pakistan. His research interest compelled and attracted him to proceed with his carrier in Plant sciences research. So, he started his Ph.D. in Soil Science at MNS University of Agriculture Multan (Pakistan). Later, he started working as a visiting scholar with Texas A&M University (USA). Shah’s experience with big Open Excess publishers like Springers, Frontiers, MDPI, etc., testified to his belief in Open Access as a barrier-removing mechanism between researchers and the readers of their research. Shah believes that Open Access is revolutionizing the publication process and benefitting research in all fields.

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