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Leonardo Bailey
Leonardo Bailey

Fish Eater: A Game of Survival and Evolution in the Ocean

A piscivore (/ˈpɪsɪvɔːr/) is a carnivorous animal that eats primarily fish. The name piscivore is derived from Latin piscis 'fish', and vorō 'to devour'. Piscivore is equivalent to the Greek-derived word ichthyophage, both of which mean "fish eater". Fish were the diet of early tetrapod evolution (via water-bound amphibians during the Devonian period); insectivory came next; then in time, the more terrestrially adapted reptiles and synapsids evolved herbivory.[1]

Almost all predatory fishes (most sharks, tuna, billfishes, pikes etc.) are obligated piscivores. Some non-piscine aquatic animals, such as whales, sea lion, and crocodilians, are not completely piscivorous; often also preying on invertebrates, marine mammals, waterbirds and even wading land animals in addition to fish, while others, such as the bulldog bat and gharial, are strictly dependent on fish for food. Some creatures, including cnidarians, octopuses, squid, spiders, cetaceans, grizzly bears, jaguars, wolves, snakes, turtles and sea gulls, may have fish as significant if not dominant portions of their diets. Humans can live on fish-based diets, as can their carnivorous domesticated pets such as dogs and cats.

fish eater


The ecological effects of piscivores can extend to other food chains. In a study of cutthroat trout stocking, researchers found that the addition of this piscivore can have noticeable effects on non-aquatic organisms, in this case bats feeding on insects emerging from the water with the trout.[2] Another study done on lionfish removal to maintain low densities use piscivore densities as a biological indicator for coral reef success.[3]

There exists classifications of primary and secondary piscivores. Primary piscivores, also known as "specialists", shift to this habit in the first few months of their lives. Secondary piscivores will move to eating primarily fish later in their lifetime. It is hypothesized that the secondary piscivores' diet change is due to an adaptation to maintain efficiency in their use of energy while growing.[4]

Numerous extinct and prehistoric animals are hypothesized to have been primarily piscivorous due to anatomy and/or ecology. Furthermore, some have been confirmed to be piscivorous through fossil evidence. This list includes specialist piscivores, such as Laganosuchus, as well as generalist predators, such as Baryonyx & Spinosaurus, found to have or assumed to have eaten fish.

Ichthyophagoi (Ancient Greek: Ἰχθυοφάγοι, "fish-eaters") and Latin Ichthyophagi is the name given by ancient geographers to several ethnically unrelated coast-dwelling peoples in different parts of the world.[1]

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The lower risk of colorectal cancer in low meat-eaters is consistent with previous evidence suggesting an adverse impact of meat intake. The lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer in vegetarian women may be explained by their lower BMI. It is not clear whether the other differences observed for all cancers and for prostate cancer reflect any causal relationships or are due to other factors such as residual confounding or differences in cancer detection.

Any difference in cancer risk between diet groups may be due to differences in physiological characteristics, including adiposity. In western populations, vegetarians and fish-eaters have been shown to have lower body mass indices in comparison with the body mass index (BMI) of meat-eaters [18,19,20] which is important for cancer risk because obesity is a known risk factor for several cancer sites [8]. Another hypothesised explanation for the lower risk of cancer observed amongst vegetarians and fish-eaters is the possible differences in hormone levels [21], such as insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) and testosterone, which may be related to their dietary intakes [21,22,23]. Hormone difference may be important as higher levels of IGF-I have been associated with higher risks of colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer [24] and higher levels of free testosterone have been associated with prostate cancer [25] and postmenopausal breast cancer [26].

To further understand these relationships, we assessed the associations of diet groups with risks of all, colorectal, postmenopausal breast, and prostate cancer in the UK Biobank, which includes approximately 10,000 fish-eaters, 8000 vegetarians, and nearly 55,000 total incident cancer cases. We additionally aimed to assess the roles of BMI, circulating IGF-I, and calculated free testosterone as potential mediators of the observed associations between diet groups and cancer risk.

In this large British cohort, being a low meat-eater, fish-eater, or vegetarian was associated with a lower risk of all cancer sites when compared to regular meat-eaters. We also found a lower risk of colorectal cancer amongst low meat-eaters, a lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer risk in vegetarian women, and a lower risk of prostate cancer amongst vegetarian men. The lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer in vegetarians may be largely a result of vegetarians having a lower BMI than regular meat-eaters, with possibly some further impact due to vegetarian women in this population having slightly lower circulating IGF-I concentrations.

In this study, vegetarians, fish-eaters, and low meat-eaters all had a lower risk of developing all cancer in comparison to regular meat-eaters. It is important to consider that although some cancers may have similar aetiologies, some cancer sites may not be associated with dietary or nutritional factors and that using all cancer incidence as an outcome may crudely capture other lifestyle factors, outside of diet, that may be associated with cancer risk and may confound the associations observed; therefore, these results should be interpreted carefully. In the two largest previous prospective studies following vegetarians, EPIC-Oxford and AHS-2 found that being a vegetarian was associated with a 10% and 8% lower risk of all cancer than being a meat-eater, respectively, after adjusting for lifestyle risk factors and BMI [12, 13]. Fish-eaters in EPIC-Oxford had a lower risk of developing all cancer [12], but no association with risk for all cancer was observed for fish-eaters in comparison to meat-eaters in AHS-2 [13]. In the current analysis, we observed some evidence of heterogeneity by smoking status, and when we removed lung cancer from all cancer cases, significant associations were only observed across diet groups within the ever smoker subgroup. Therefore, the differences observed between diet groups for all cancer outcomes combined may not be due to diet and might be due to residual confounding by differences in other lifestyle factors, such as smoking.

The risk of colorectal cancer was lower in low meat-eaters in comparison to regular meat-eaters whereas there was no significant difference for fish-eaters and vegetarians, potentially due to lack of power as the point estimates suggested lower risks in both these non-meat-eating diet groups. In both EPIC-Oxford and AHS-2, being a fish-eater was associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer in comparison with meat-eaters, whereas no association was observed for being vegetarian and risk of colorectal cancer compared to regular meat-eaters [12, 16]. We also observed heterogeneity by sex, in that significant inverse associations were observed with risk across diet groups in men, when compared to regular meat-eaters, but not for women. This may in part be due to dietary differences between sexes; however, the number of colorectal cancer cases in some diet groups was too small to draw a clear conclusion. The intake of processed meat has been evaluated by the World Health Organization and World Cancer Research Fund to be a definite cause of colorectal cancer [40] and red meat as a probable cause of colorectal cancer [40, 41]. This is likely to at least in part explain the lower risk of colorectal cancer in low meat-eaters, and mechanisms suggested include chemicals in meat such as nitrosamines [40, 42]. Overweight and obesity also increase the risk for colorectal cancer [43, 44], but in mediation analyses, BMI did not appear to mediate the difference observed between low meat-eaters and regular meat-eaters.

A borderline significantly lower risk for postmenopausal breast cancer was observed for vegetarian women, which appeared to be largely due to their lower BMI as evidenced in mediation analyses and the attenuation of estimates when analyses were adjusted for BMI. We also observed a small potential effect for mediation for lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer for vegetarians through lower IGF-I concentrations, perhaps influenced by the inclusion of vegans in this group [23]. To date, studies have reported a non-significantly lower risk of breast cancer for women following a vegetarian or pescatarian diet with or without adjustment for BMI [12, 14, 17, 45], which may be due to lack of power to detect modest associations in individual studies. Breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease, with differing risk factors by menopausal status and hormone receptor status [46]. BMI is robustly associated with higher postmenopausal breast cancer risk, probably due to higher circulating oestrogen derived from aromatisation of androgens in the adipose tissue [46]. As such, being vegetarian would be expected to confer a lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer in comparison to meat-eaters because vegetarians generally have a lower BMI, but whether BMI is a confounder or a mediator for this association is not clear; if vegetarians have a lower BMI because of their diet then BMI may be considered a mediator, but if vegetarians have a lower BMI that is not due to their dietary intake but rather due to other non-dietary lifestyle factors (e.g. physical activity), then BMI would be considered to be a confounder.

The risk of prostate cancer was lower in men who were vegetarians or fish-eaters in comparison to regular meat-eaters, but no difference in risk was observed for low meat-eaters. Previous analyses in the EPIC-Oxford cohort found a non-significantly lower risk of prostate cancer for British vegetarians and fish-eaters in comparison to meat-eaters [12]. In the AHS-2 study, no difference was found for vegetarians or fish-eaters, whereas being vegan was associated with a 35% lower risk of prostate cancer (based on 1079 cases in the cohort of which only 59 were in vegans) [15]. To date, no established dietary risk factor has been found in relation to prostate cancer risk, although there is some evidence which suggests that higher intake of dairy products, and possibly milk specifically, may increase the risk of prostate cancer [48]. This association has been proposed to be possibly mediated through IGF-I [22, 49], a hormone shown to be positively associated with both milk intake and prostate cancer risk [25, 50]. In this cohort, slightly lower IGF-I concentrations have been observed in vegetarians compared to regular meat-eaters [21], and IGF-I has also been associated with prostate cancer risk [25]; however, the difference in IGF-I concentrations between these diet groups is small and may not confer a substantial difference in prostate cancer risk. As might be expected, in mediation analyses, the estimates were imprecise and there was no evidence that the difference in IGF-I concentrations between diet groups mediates the observed associations with cancer risk.


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