Mercury and Other Metals in Feathers of Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) and Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) from the Aleutian Chain of Alaska



We analyzed arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, mercury, and selenium in the feathers of common eiders (Somateria mollissima) and tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) from Amchitka and Kiska islands (Aleutians). Between species, puffins had 10 times higher chromium (arithmetic mean = 1820 ppb), 7.5 times higher selenium (mean = 6600 ppb), and 3 times higher mercury (mean = 2540 ppb) than eiders. Eiders had significantly higher levels of manganese than puffins. Puffins are higher on the food chain than eiders, which is reflected in their generally higher levels of metals in their feathers. Interisland differences were generally small, and there were few significant differences as a function of the three nuclear test locations on Amchitka. The only sex-related difference was that female puffins had higher mercury than males (arithmetic mean of 3060 ppb vs. 2270 ppb). Mean levels of metals in the feathers of puffins and eiders from the Aleutians were low compared with comparable studies elsewhere, and the relatively low levels of metals do not indicate the potential for adverse behavioral or reproductive effects in the birds themselves, nor pose concern for other consumers, including subsistence hunters.



Feathers were collected under appropriate state and federal permits (04-079, MBO-86658-0, and 22833), and our studies were approved by the Rutgers University Animal Review Board. We thank the many people who contributed to the development and execution of CRESP’s Amchitka Geophysical and Biological Project, especially C. W. Powers, D. Kosson, B. Friedlander, C. Jeitner, S. Burke, D. Volz, and S. Jewett. We also thank the following for help throughout the project: D. Barnes, L. Duffy, A. Morkill, R. Patrick, D. Rogers, D. Dasher, and the people of the villages of Unalaska, Nikolski, Atka, and Adak in the Aleutians. Technical help was provided by T. Shukla, S. Shukla, M. Donio, C. Chin, A. Qu, and C. Lamptey. We thank the entire crew of the Ocean Explorer, Captain Ray Haddon, mate Glenn Jahnke, cook Don Dela Cruz, and Bill Dixon, Joao Do Mar, and Walter Pestka, for making our field work possible and pleasant and for bringing us safely back to port. This research was funded by the Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation (CRESP) through the Department of Energy (DE-FG 26-00NT 40938, DE-FC01-86EW07053), the Division of Life Sciences of Rutgers University, by Wildlife Trust, and by NIEHS ESO 5022. The results, conclusions, and interpretations reported herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and should not in any way be interpreted as representing the views of the funding agencies.


  1. AFSC (Alaska Fisheries Science Center) (2006) Alaska fisheries: Pollock 2007. Available from (accessed 8 August 2008)
  2. ATSDR (2004) Public health assessment: Naval Air Facility, Adak. Available from (accessed 8 August 2008)
  3. Bargagli R, Monaci F, Sanchez-Hernandez JC, Cateni D (1998) Biomagnification of mercury in an Antarctic marine coastal food web. Marine Ecol Progr Series 169:65–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Braune BW (1987) Comparison of total mercury levels in relation to diet and molt for nine species of marine birds. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 16:217–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Braune BW, Donaldson GM, Hobson KA (2002) Contaminant residues in seabird eggs from the Canadian Arctic. II. Spatial trends and evidence from stable isotopes for intercolony differences. Environ Poll 117:133–145Google Scholar
  6. Braune BW, Gaskin DE (1987) Mercury levels in Bonaparte’s gull (Larus Philadelphia) during autumn molt in the Quoddy region, New Brunswick, Canada. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 16:539–549CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burger J (1993) Metals in avian feathers: bioindicators of environmental pollution. Rev Environ Toxicol 5:203–311Google Scholar
  8. Burger J (2002) Food chain differences affect heavy metals in bird eggs in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. Environ Res 90:33–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Burger J, Gochfeld M (1991) Cadmium and lead in common terns (Aves: Sterna hirundo): relationship between levels in parents and eggs. Environ Monit Assess 16:253–258CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Burger J, Gochfeld M (1996) Heavy metal and selenium levels in Franklin’s Gull (Larus pipixcan) parents and their eggs. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 30:487–491Google Scholar
  11. Burger J, Gochfeld M (1997) Risk, mercury levels, and birds: relating adverse laboratory effects to field biomonitoring. Environ Res 75:160–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Burger J, Gochfeld M (1999) Heavy metals in Franklin’s gull tissues: age and tissue differences. Environ Toxicol Chem 18:673–678CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Burger J, Gochfeld M (2000a) Metal levels in feathers of 12 species of seabirds from Midway Atoll in the northern Pacific Ocean. Sci Total Environ 257:37–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Burger J, Gochfeld M (2000b) Metals in albatross feathers from Midway Atoll: influence of species, age, and nest location. Environ Res 82:207–221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Burger J, Gochfeld M (2000c) Effects of lead on birds (Laridae): a review of laboratory and field studies. J Toxicol Environ Health 3:59–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Burger J, Gochfeld M (2000d) Metals in Laysan albatrosses from Midway Atoll. Arch Environ Contamin Toxicol 38:254–259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Burger J, Gochfeld M (2001) Effects of chemicals and pollution on seabirds. In Schreiber EA, Burger J (eds) Biology of marine birds. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, pp 485–525Google Scholar
  18. Burger J, Gochfeld M (2004) Metal levels in eggs of common terns (Sterna hirundo) in New Jersey: temporal trends from 1971 to 2002. Environ Res 94:336–343CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Burger J, Gochfeld M (2007) Metals and radionuclides in birds and eggs from Amchitka and Kiska Islands in the Bering Sea/Pacific Ocean ecosystem. Environ Monit Assess 127:105–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Burger J, Gochfeld M, Jeitner C et al (2008) Mercury and other metals in feathers of glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucescens) in the Aleutians. Environ Monit Assess. 2008 Jul 15 [Epub ahead of print]Google Scholar
  21. Burger J, Gochfeld M, Kosson D et al (2005) Science, policy, and stakeholders: developing a consensus science plan for Amchitka Island, Aleutians, Alaska. Environ Manage 35:557–568CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Burger J, Gochfeld M, Kosson DS, Powers CW (2006a) Biomonitoring for ecosystem and human health protection at Amchitka Island. CRESP, Piscataway, NJGoogle Scholar
  23. Burger J, Jewett S, Gochfeld M et al (2006b) Can biota sampling for environmental monitoring be used to characterize benthic communities in the Aleutians? Sci Total Environ 369:393–402CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Burger J, Shukla T, Dixon C et al (2001) Metals in feathers of sooty tern, white tern, gray-backed tern, and brown noddy from islands in the North Pacific. Environ Monit Assess 71:71–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Cooper WC (1984) The health implications of increased manganese in the environment resulting from the combustion of fuel additives: a review of the literature. J Toxicol Environ Health 14:23–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Cottam C (1939) Food habits of North American diving ducks. Techical Bulletin No. 643. US Department of Agriculture, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  27. Custer TW, Hoffman WL (1994) Trace elements in canvasback (Aytha valisineria) wintering in Louisiana, USA, 1987–1988. Environ Poll 84:253–259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Eisler R (1985) Cadmium hazards to fish, wildlife and invertebrates: a synoptic review. Biological Report 85 (1.2). US Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  29. Eisler R (1987) Mercury hazards to fish, wildlife and invertebrates: a synoptic review. Biological Report 85 (1.1). US Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  30. Fimreite N, Brevik F, Trop R (1982) Mercury and organochlorine in eggs from a Norwegian gannet colony. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 28:58–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Fimreite N, Brun E, Froslie A, Fredrickson P, Gundersen N (1974) Mercury in eggs of Norwegian seabirds. Astarte 1:71–75Google Scholar
  32. Wildlife Fish Service (2004) Alaska subsistence spring/summer migratory bird harvest. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Anchorage, AKGoogle Scholar
  33. Fitzgerald WF (1989) Atmospheric and oceanic cycling of mercury. In: Riley JP, Chester R (eds) Chemical oceanography, vol 10. Academic Press, New York, pp 151–186Google Scholar
  34. Furness RW (1993) Birds as monitors of pollutants. In: Furness RW, Greenwood JJD (eds) Birds as monitors of environmental change. Chapman & Hall, London, pp 86–143Google Scholar
  35. Furness RW, Camphuysen KCJ (1997) Seabirds as monitors of the marine environment. J Marine Sci 54:726–723Google Scholar
  36. Furness RW, Muirhead SJ, Woodburn M (1986) Using bird feathers to measure mercury in the environment: relationship between mercury content and moult. Marine Poll Bull 17:27–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Furness RW, Rainbow PS (eds) (1990) Heavy metals in the marine environment. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FLGoogle Scholar
  38. Gochfeld M (1980) Mercury levels in some seabirds of the Humboldt Current, Peru. Environ Pollut A 22:197–205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Gochfeld M, Beland J, Shukla T, Benson T, Burger J (1996) Heavy metals in laughing gulls: gender, age and tissue differences. Environ Toxicol Chem 15:2275–2283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Goede AA, deBruin M (1986) The use of feathers for indicating heavy metal pollution. Environ Monit Assess 7:249–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Goudie RI, Robertson GJ, Reed A (2000) Common eider. Birds North Am 546:1–32Google Scholar
  42. Houghton JT, Callander BA, Varney SK (1992) Climate change 1992. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  43. Hammerschmidt CR, Fitzgerald WF, Lamborg CH, Balcom PH, Tseng CM (2006) Biogeochemical cycling of methylmercury in lakes and tundra watersheds of Arctic Alaska. Environ Sci Technol 40:1204–1211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Hamrick K, Smith J (2003) Subsistence food use in Unalaska and Nikolski. Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, Anchorage, AKGoogle Scholar
  45. Heinz GH (1996) Selenium in birds. In: Beyer WM, Heinz WM (eds) Environmental contaminants in wildlife: Interpreting tissue concentrations. Lewis, Boca Raton, FL, pp 447–458Google Scholar
  46. Kelsall JP, Calaprice JR (1972) Chemical content of waterfowl plumage as a potential diagnostic tool. J Wildlife Manage 36:1088–1097Google Scholar
  47. Kenyon KW (1961) Birds of Amchitka Island, Alaska. Auk 78:305–326Google Scholar
  48. Kim EY, Murakami T, Saeki D, Tatsukawa R (1996) Mercury levels and its chemical form in tissues and organs of seabirds. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 30:259–266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lewis SA, Furness RW (1991) Mercury accumulation and excretion by laboratory reared black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) chicks. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 21:316–320CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Mailman RB (1980) Heavy metals. In: Perry JJ (ed) Introduction to environmental toxicology. Elsevier, New York, pp 34–43Google Scholar
  51. Merritt ML, Fuller RG (eds) (1977) The environment of Amchitka Island, Alaska. Report NVO-79. Technical Information Center. Energy Research and Development Administration, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  52. Metcheva R, Yurukova L, Teodorova S, Nikolova E (2006) The penguin feathers as bioindicator of Antarctic environmental state. Sci Total Environ 362:259–265CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Monteiro LR (1996) Seabirds as monitors of mercury in the marine environment. Water Air Soil Pollut 80:851–870CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Monteiro LR, Furness RW (1995) Seabirds as monitors of mercury in the marine environment. Water Air Soil Pollut 80:831–870CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) (2004) Dutch Harbor—Unalaska, in Alaska, Top U.S. port for landings in 2003. NOAA report 04-096. Available from (accessed 26 May 2006)
  56. Nygard T, Lie E, Roy N, Steinnes E (2001) Metal dynamics in an Antarctic food chain. Marine Pollut Bull 42:598–602CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Patrick R (2002) How local Alaska native communities view the Amchitka issue. In Proceedings of the Amchitka long-term stewardship workshop. CRESP/University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AKGoogle Scholar
  58. Peakall DB (1992) Animal biomarkers as pollution indicators. Chapman & Hall, LondonGoogle Scholar
  59. Piatt JF, Kitaysky AS (2002) Tufted puffin. Birds North Am 708:1–32Google Scholar
  60. Powers CW, Burger J, Kosson D, Gochfeld M, Barnes D (eds) (2005) Biological and geophysical aspects of potential radionuclide exposure in the Amchitka marine environment. CRESP, Piscataway, NJGoogle Scholar
  61. Rocque DA, Winker K (2004) Biomonitoring of contaminants in birds from two trophic levels in the North Pacific. Environ Toxicol Chem 23:759–766CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Rose GA, Parker GH (1982) Effects of smelter emissions on metal levels in the plumage of ruffed grouse near Sudbury, Ontario. Can J Zool 60:2659–2667Google Scholar
  63. SAS (Statistical Analysis System) (1995) SAS users’ guide. SAS Institute, Cary, NCGoogle Scholar
  64. Savinov VM, Gabrielsen GW, Savinova TN (2003) Cadmium, zinc, copper, arsenic, selenium and mercury in seabirds from the Barents Sea: levels, inter-specific and geographical differences. Sci Total Environ 306:133–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Schiefler R, Gauthier-Clerc M, LeBohec C et al (2005) Mercury concentrations in king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) feathers at Crozet Islands (Sub-Antarctica): temporal trend between 1966–1974 and 2000–2001. Environ Toxicol Chem 24:125–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Simon SL, Bouville A, Beck HL (2004) The geographic distribution of radionuclide deposition across the continental U.S. from atmospheric nuclear testing. J Environ Radioact 74:91–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Spry DJ, Wiener JG (1991) Metal bioavailability and toxicity to fish in low-alkalinity lakes: a critical review. Environ Poll 71:243–304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Thompson DR, Furness RW (1998) Seabirds as biomonitors of mercury inputs to epipelagic and mesopelagic marine food chains. Sci Total Environ 213:299–305CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Thompson DR, Hamer KC, Furness RW (1991) Comparison of the levels of total and organic mercury in seabird feathers. Marine Pollut Bull 20:577–579CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Thompson DR, Bearhop S, Speakman JR, Furness RW (1998) Feathers as a means of monitoring mercury in seabirds: insights from stable isotope analysis. Environ Pollut 101:193–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. van Straalen NM, Ernst WHO (1991) Metal biomagnification may endanger species in critical pathways. Oikos 62:255–265CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Walsh PM (1990) The use of seabirds as monitors of heavy metals in the marine environment. In: Furness RW, Rainbow PS (eds) Heavy metals in the marine environment. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, pp 183–204Google Scholar
  73. Wayland M, Gilchrist HG, Neugebauer E (2005) Concentrations of cadmium, mercury and selenium in common eider ducks in the eastern Canadian arctic: influence of reproductive stage. Sci Total Environ 351:323–332CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Wiener JG, Spry DJ (1996) Toxicological significance of mercury in freshwater fish. In: Beyer WN, Heinz GH, Redmon-Norwood AW (eds) Environmental contaminants in wildlife: Interpreting tissue concentrations. SETAC Special Publications, Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL, pp 297–339Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Life SciencesRutgers UniversityPiscatawayUSA
  2. 2.Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation (CRESP)PiscatawayUSA
  3. 3.Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI)PiscatawayUSA
  4. 4.Environmental and Occupational MedicineUMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical SchoolPiscatawayUSA

Personalised recommendations