Environmental Monitoring and Assessment

, Volume 171, Issue 1, pp 671–679

Mercury concentrations in tidal marsh sparrows and their use as bioindicators in Delaware Bay, USA


  • Sarah E. Warner
    • Department of Entomology and Wildlife EcologyUniversity of Delaware
    • Department of Entomology and Wildlife EcologyUniversity of Delaware
  • Margaret A. Pepper
    • Department of Entomology and Wildlife EcologyUniversity of Delaware
  • Robert J. Taylor
    • Trace Element Research LabTexas A&M University

DOI: 10.1007/s10661-010-1312-z

Cite this article as:
Warner, S.E., Shriver, W.G., Pepper, M.A. et al. Environ Monit Assess (2010) 171: 671. doi:10.1007/s10661-010-1312-z


Mercury (Hg) contamination from industrial sources is pervasive throughout North America and is recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a health hazard for wildlife and humans. Avian species are commonly used as bioindicators of Hg because they are sensitive to contaminants in the environment and are relatively easy to sample. However, it is important to select the appropriate avian species to use as a bioindicator, which should be directly related to the project objectives. In this study, we tested the utility of two tidal marsh sparrows, Seaside (Ammodramus maritimus) and Saltmarsh (Ammodramus caudacutus) sparrows, as bioindicator species of the extent of Hg contamination in tidal marshes along the Delaware Bay. To determine the possibility of using one or both of these species, we estimated sparrow blood Hg burden in five Delaware watersheds. We found no difference in Hg concentrations between species (F1,133 < 0.01, P = 0.99), but Saltmarsh Sparrows had limited sample size from each site and were, therefore, not appropriate for a Delaware Bay-wide Hg indicator. Seaside Sparrows, however, were abundant and relatively easy to sample in the five watersheds. Seaside Sparrow blood Hg levels ranged from 0.15 to 2.12 ppm, differed among drainages, and were greatest in two drainages distant from the Delaware Bay shoreline (F4,95 = 2.51, P = 0.05). Based on a power analysis for Seaside Sparrow blood Hg, we estimated that 16 samples would be necessary to detect differences among sites. Based on these data, we propose that Seaside Sparrows may be used as a tidal marsh Hg bioindicator species given their habitat specificity, relative abundance, widespread distribution in marsh habitats, ease of sampling, and limited variation in blood Hg estimates within a sampling area. In Delaware Bay, Saltmarsh Sparrows may be too rare (making them difficult to sample) to be a viable tidal marsh Hg bioindicator.


AmmodramusBioindicatorsDelaware BayMercuryTidal Marsh
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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010