What is the Difference Between Bioaccumulation & Biomagnification?

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  • 0:04 Chemicals & Food Chains
  • 0:42 Bioaccumulation
  • 1:13 Biomagnification
  • 2:19 Similarities & Differences
  • 3:35 Examples
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

Bioaccumulation and biomagnification are very similar yet quite different. We are going to discuss each and compare them to make their differences better understood.

Chemicals & Food Chains

There are several terms that seem so closely related that they are easily mixed up. This is the case with two scientific terms that have been used more and more in recent years as scientists have studied the environment and how it affects food chains. A food chain is a linking showing which animals eat which other animals. When an animal eats its prey, it also ingests the chemicals that the prey had built up in its body.

Some chemicals are harmless, while others are harmful or toxic. Toxic chemicals exist in the air, water, and soil and can enter food chains by being absorbed or eaten by animals.

Bioaccumulation

This brings us to our first often-confused term. Bioaccumulation refers to the build-up of a toxic chemical in the body of a living organism. What essentially happens is that an organism absorbs the chemicals across their skin or otherwise takes them in. The concentration of the toxic chemical will become higher in the organism than it is in the air, water, or soil that the organism got it from. Over time, the amount of the toxic chemical will grow until it reaches the point where it becomes deadly to the living organism.

Biomagnification

The term that bioaccumulation is often confused with is biomagnification, which is when a toxic chemical increases in amount each time it moves up a food chain. The toxic chemical may start at a low amount in the original organism that originally took it in, but then that organism is eaten. The second animal that eats the original organism is larger and therefore needs to consume more than just one or two of the organism. This causes the toxic chemical in the second animal to increase from eating multiple organisms.

Now, the second animal is eaten by an even larger animal. Because this third animal is even bigger than the second animal, it has to eat several of the second animal. This causes the amount of the toxic chemical to be magnified again.

Finally, the larger third animal gets eaten by a yet much larger animal. Now this fourth animal really eats a lot of the third animal and ends up with a very high amount of the toxic chemical in its body. The amount of the toxic chemical can be so high at this point that eating even a modest amount can become life-threatening for the next animal in the food chain.

Similarities & Differences

Let's first look at the similarities between bioaccumulation and biomagnification. We already know that both require a chemical to enter into living organisms and both require that the chemical is a toxic one. We wouldn't really care about the build-up of a non-toxic chemical. There's really no harm there, in other words.

They both require that the chemical be dissolved in fat. When a chemical is dissolved into the fat of an animal, then it passes much easier to the animal that eats it. The chemical must also be mobile. Any chemical that sits still will not make its way into the body of an organism and therefore will not cause bioaccumulation or biomagnification.

Lastly, the toxic chemical must be stable enough to live for a long time. If the chemical breaks down quickly, then it will not build up quickly enough to cause bioaccumulation or biomagnification.

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