Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology

, Volume 55, Issue 1, pp 111-121

First online:

Cliff Swallows Petrochelidon pyrrhonota as Bioindicators of Environmental Mercury, Cache Creek Watershed, California

  • Roger L. HothemAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center, Dixon Field Station Email author 
  • , Bonnie S. TrejoAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center, Dixon Field Station
  • , Marissa L. BauerAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey, California Water Science Center
  • , John J. CrayonAffiliated withCalifornia Department of Fish and Game

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To evaluate mercury (Hg) and other element exposure in cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), eggs were collected from 16 sites within the mining-impacted Cache Creek watershed, Colusa, Lake, and Yolo counties, California, USA, in 1997–1998. Nestlings were collected from seven sites in 1998. Geometric mean total Hg (THg) concentrations ranged from 0.013 to 0.208 μg/g wet weight (ww) in cliff swallow eggs and from 0.047 to 0.347 μg/g ww in nestlings. Mercury detected in eggs generally followed the spatial distribution of Hg in the watershed based on proximity to both anthropogenic and natural sources. Mean Hg concentrations in samples of eggs and nestlings collected from sites near Hg sources were up to five and seven times higher, respectively, than in samples from reference sites within the watershed. Concentrations of other detected elements, including aluminum, beryllium, boron, calcium, manganese, strontium, and vanadium, were more frequently elevated at sites near Hg sources. Overall, Hg concentrations in eggs from Cache Creek were lower than those reported in eggs of tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) from highly contaminated locations in North America. Total Hg concentrations were lower in all Cache Creek egg samples than adverse effects levels established for other species. Total Hg concentrations in bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana) and foothill yellow-legged frogs (Rana boylii) collected from 10 of the study sites were both positively correlated with THg concentrations in cliff swallow eggs. Our data suggest that cliff swallows are reliable bioindicators of environmental Hg.