Trace element distribution in growing feathers: Additional excretion in feather sheaths

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Abstract

The use of feathers is a non-invasive and repeatable method for biomonitoring trace element levels in birds and their ecosystems. Trace element levels were examined in different parts of growing flight feathers from young common terns (Sterna hirundo) to determine distribution of heavy metals and selenium, potential bias from using partially grown feathers, and whether additional heavy metals and selenium are excreted in feather sheaths that are sloughed before feathers are usually sampled. Lead and mercury levels were significantly higher in the distal fully formed portion of the growing feather (with no residual blood supply) compared to the proximal, growing portion of the feather with a residual blood supply, but no significant differences were evident for cadmium and selenium. These results suggest that using partially grown feathers underestimates the amount of lead and mercury in fully formed feathers and that higher levels of lead and mercury are sequestered in feathers than are present in the blood at any one time. Significantly higher concentrations of lead and cadmium, and significantly lower levels of mercury were in the sheath compared to the whole feather blade. These data suggest that birds excrete more lead and cadmium during molt than previously thought.