, Volume 18, Issue 5, pp 499-503

First online:

Compromised immune competence in free-living tree swallows exposed to mercury

  • Dana M. HawleyAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Virginia Tech Email author 
  • , Kelly K. HallingerAffiliated withInstitute for Integrative Bird Behavior Studies, Department of Biology, College of William and Mary
  • , Daniel A. CristolAffiliated withInstitute for Integrative Bird Behavior Studies, Department of Biology, College of William and Mary

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Mercury is a pervasive environmental contaminant and a well-documented immunosuppressor. However, little is known about the effects of mercury contamination on health of free-living vertebrate populations. The South River in Virginia, USA was heavily contaminated with industrial mercury from 1929 to 1950, and recent studies have documented high levels of circulating mercury in riparian songbirds breeding below the site of contamination. Here we used two standardized immune assays, mitogen-induced swelling in response to phytohaemagglutinin (PHA) and antibody response to sheep red blood cells (SRBCs), to test for effects of mercury toxicity on the immune system of female tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) which feed on terrestrial and aquatic insects along the contaminated waterway. We found that females breeding at mercury-contaminated sites mounted significantly weaker PHA-induced swelling responses than those at reference sites in both years of study. However, among females on the contaminated sites, individual bloodstream mercury concentration did not predict the extent of mitogen-induced swelling. We did not detect any differences between reference and contaminated females in the strength of antibody responses to SRBCs, but sample sizes for this assay were significantly smaller. Overall, our results suggest that mercury toxicity can exert sub-lethal immunosuppression in free-living, insectivorous songbirds. The potential fitness consequences of the detected differences in immunocompetence caused by mercury toxicity warrant further study.


Mercury Songbird Immune competence Tree swallow Tachycineta bicolor