Fracked ecology: Response of aquatic trophic structure and mercury biomagnification dynamics in the Marcellus Shale Formation
Unconventional natural gas development and hydraulic fracturing practices (fracking) are increasing worldwide due to global energy demands. Research has only recently begun to assess fracking impacts to surrounding environments, and very little research is aimed at determining effects on aquatic biodiversity and contaminant biomagnification. Twenty-seven remotely-located streams in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale basin were sampled during June and July of 2012 and 2013. At each stream, stream physiochemical properties, trophic biodiversity, and structure and mercury levels were assessed. We used δ15N, δ13C, and methyl mercury to determine whether changes in methyl mercury biomagnification were related to the fracking occurring within the streams’ watersheds. While we observed no difference in rates of biomagnificaion related to within-watershed fracking activities, we did observe elevated methyl mercury concentrations that were influenced by decreased stream pH, elevated dissolved stream water Hg values, decreased macroinvertebrate Index for Biotic Integrity scores, and lower Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, and Trichoptera macroinvertebrate richness at stream sites where fracking had occurred within their watershed. We documented the loss of scrapers from streams with the highest well densities, and no fish or no fish diversity at streams with documented frackwater fluid spills. Our results suggest fracking has the potential to alter aquatic biodiversity and methyl mercury concentrations at the base of food webs.