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Concept: Inuit


The demographic history of Greenland is characterized by recurrent migrations and extinctions since the first humans arrived 4,500 years ago. Our current understanding of these extinct cultures relies primarily on preserved fossils found in their archaeological deposits, which hold valuable information on past subsistence practices. However, some exploited taxa, though economically important, comprise only a small fraction of these sub-fossil assemblages. Here we reconstruct a comprehensive record of past subsistence economies in Greenland by sequencing ancient DNA from four well-described midden deposits. Our results confirm that the species found in the fossil record, like harp seal and ringed seal, were a vital part of Inuit subsistence, but also add a new dimension with evidence that caribou, walrus and whale species played a more prominent role for the survival of Paleo-Inuit cultures than previously reported. Most notably, we report evidence of bowhead whale exploitation by the Saqqaq culture 4,000 years ago.

Concepts: Polar bear, Archaeology, Greenland, Dinosaur, DNA, Fossil, Evolution, Inuit


Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) have a nearly circumpolar distribution, and occasionally occupy warmer shallow coastal areas during summertime that may facilitate molting. However, relatively little is known about the occurrence of molting and associated behaviors in bowhead whales. We opportunistically observed whales in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, Canada with skin irregularities consistent with molting during August 2014, and collected a skin sample from a biopsied whale that revealed loose epidermis and sloughing. During August 2016, we flew a small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) over whales to take video and still images to: 1) determine unique individuals; 2) estimate the proportion of the body of unique individuals that exhibited sloughing skin; 3) determine the presence or absence of superficial lines representative of rock-rubbing behavior; and 4) measure body lengths to infer age-class. The still images revealed that all individuals (n = 81 whales) were sloughing skin, and that nearly 40% of them had mottled skin over more than two-thirds of their bodies. The video images captured bowhead whales rubbing on large rocks in shallow, coastal areas-likely to facilitate molting. Molting and rock rubbing appears to be pervasive during late summer for whales in the eastern Canadian Arctic.

Concepts: Stratum corneum, Skin, Foxe Basin, Canada, Whaling, Alaska, Bowhead whale, Inuit


Dogs were present in pre-Columbian America, presumably brought by early human migrants from Asia. Studies of free-ranging village/street dogs have indicated almost total replacement of these original dogs by European dogs, but the extent to which Arctic, North and South American breeds are descendants of the original population remains to be assessed. Using a comprehensive phylogeographic analysis, we traced the origin of the mitochondrial DNA lineages for Inuit, Eskimo and Greenland dogs, Alaskan Malamute, Chihuahua, xoloitzcuintli and perro sín pelo del Peru, by comparing to extensive samples of East Asian (n = 984) and European dogs (n = 639), and previously published pre-Columbian sequences. Evidence for a pre-Columbian origin was found for all these breeds, except Alaskan Malamute for which results were ambigous. No European influence was indicated for the Arctic breeds Inuit, Eskimo and Greenland dog, and North/South American breeds had at most 30% European female lineages, suggesting marginal replacement by European dogs. Genetic continuity through time was shown by the sharing of a unique haplotype between the Mexican breed Chihuahua and ancient Mexican samples. We also analysed free-ranging dogs, confirming limited pre-Columbian ancestry overall, but also identifying pockets of remaining populations with high proportion of indigenous ancestry, and we provide the first DNA-based evidence that the Carolina dog, a free-ranging population in the USA, may have an ancient Asian origin.

Concepts: North America, United States, Dog breeds, Americas, Dog breed, Sled dog, Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Inuit


Flexible foraging strategies, such as prey switching, omnivory and food mixing, are key to surviving in a labile and changing environment. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in western Hudson Bay are versatile predators that use all of these strategies as they seasonally exploit resources across trophic levels. Climate warming is reducing availability of their ice habitat, especially in spring when polar bears gain most of their annual fat reserves by consuming seal pups before coming ashore in summer. How polar bears combine these flexible foraging strategies to obtain and utilize terrestrial food will become increasingly important in compensating for energy deficits from lost seal hunting opportunities. We evaluated patterns in the composition of foods in scat to characterize the foraging behaviors that underpin the diet mixing and omnivory observed in polar bears on land in western Hudson Bay. Specifically, we measured diet richness, proportions of plant and animal foods, patterns in co-occurrence of foods, spatial composition and an index of temporal composition.

Concepts: Inuit, Omnivore, Hunting, Pinniped, Optimal foraging theory, Carnivore, Bear, Polar bear


Infant mortality is higher in Indigenous than non-Indigenous populations, but comparable data on infant morbidity are lacking in Canada. We evaluated disparities in infant morbidities experienced by Indigenous populations in Canada.

Concepts: Indigenous peoples, Inuit, United States, Demography, Population, First Nations


The indigenous people of Greenland, the Inuit, have lived for a long time in the extreme conditions of the Arctic, including low annual temperatures, and with a specialized diet rich in protein and fatty acids, particularly omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). A scan of Inuit genomes for signatures of adaptation revealed signals at several loci, with the strongest signal located in a cluster of fatty acid desaturases that determine PUFA levels. The selected alleles are associated with multiple metabolic and anthropometric phenotypes and have large effect sizes for weight and height, with the effect on height replicated in Europeans. By analyzing membrane lipids, we found that the selected alleles modulate fatty acid composition, which may affect the regulation of growth hormones. Thus, the Inuit have genetic and physiological adaptations to a diet rich in PUFAs.

Concepts: Inuit, Fatty acids, Protein, Fat, Fatty acid, Genetics, Essential fatty acid, Nutrition



Diet is a major determinant of community composition in the human gut microbiome, and “traditional” diets have been associated with distinct and highly diverse communities, compared to Western diets. However, most traditional diets studied have been those of agrarians and hunter-gatherers consuming fiber-rich diets. In contrast, the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic have been consuming a traditional diet low in carbohydrates and rich in animal fats and protein for thousands of years. We hypothesized that the Inuit diet and lifestyle would be associated with a distinct microbiome. We used deep sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene to compare the gut microbiomes of Montrealers with a Western diet to those of the Inuit consuming a range of traditional and Western diets. At the overall microbial community level, the gut microbiomes of Montrealers and Inuit were indistinguishable and contained similar levels of microbial diversity. However, we observed significant differences in the relative abundances of certain microbial taxa down to the subgenus level using oligotyping. For example, Prevotella spp., which have been previously associated with high-fiber diets, were enriched in Montrealers and among the Inuit consuming a Western diet. The gut microbiomes of Inuit consuming a traditional diet also had significantly less genetic diversity within the Prevotella genus, suggesting that a low-fiber diet might not only select against Prevotella but also reduce its diversity. Other microbes, such as Akkermansia, were associated with geography as well as diet, suggesting limited dispersal to the Arctic. Our report provides a snapshot of the Inuit microbiome as Western-like in overall community structure but distinct in the relative abundances and diversity of certain genera and strains. IMPORTANCE Non-Western populations have been shown to have distinct gut microbial communities shaped by traditional diets. The hitherto-uncharacterized microbiome of the Inuit may help us to better understand health risks specific to this population such as diabetes and obesity, which increase in prevalence as many Inuit transition to a Western diet. Here we show that even Inuit consuming a mostly traditional diet have a broadly Western-like microbiome. This suggests that similarities between the Inuit diet and the Western diet (low fiber, high fat) may lead to a convergence of community structures and diversity. However, certain species and strains of microbes have significantly different levels of abundance and diversity in the Inuit, possibly driven by differences in diet. Furthermore, the Inuit diet provides an exception to the correlation between traditional diets and high microbial diversity, potentially due to their transitioning diet. Knowledge of the Inuit microbiome may provide future resources for interventions and conservation of Inuit heritage.

Concepts: Species, Microbiology, Ribosomal RNA, Fat, Canada, 16S ribosomal RNA, Inuit, Diets


The evolution of baleen constituted a major evolutionary change that made it possible for baleen whales to reach enormous body sizes while filter feeding on tiny organisms and migrating over tremendous distances. Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) live in the Arctic where the annual cycle of increasing and decreasing ice cover affects their habitat, prey, and migration. During the nursing period, bowheads grow rapidly; but between weaning and approximately year 5, bowhead whales display sustained baleen and head growth while limiting growth in the rest of their bodies. During this period, they withdraw resources from the skeleton, in particular the ribs, which may lose 40% of bone mass. Such dramatic changes in bones of immature mammals are rare, although fossil cetaceans between 40 and 50 million years ago show an array of rib specializations that include bone loss and are usually interpreted as related to buoyancy control.

Concepts: Skeletal system, Inuit, Evolution, Whaling, Bowhead whale


This review critically evaluates the available mercury (Hg) data in Arctic marine biota and the Inuit population against toxicity threshold values. In particular marine top predators exhibit concentrations of mercury in their tissues and organs that are believed to exceed thresholds for biological effects. Species whose concentrations exceed threshold values include the polar bears (Ursus maritimus), beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), pilot whale (Globicephala melas), hooded seal (Cystophora cristata), a few seabird species, and landlocked Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus). Toothed whales appear to be one of the most vulnerable groups, with high concentrations of mercury recorded in brain tissue with associated signs of neurochemical effects. Evidence of increasing concentrations in mercury in some biota in Arctic Canada and Greenland is therefore a concern with respect to ecosystem health.

Concepts: Arctic, Pilot whale, Bear, Megafauna, Narwhal, Pinniped, Polar bear, Inuit