, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 69–81 | Cite as

Adverse effects from environmental mercury loads on breeding common loons

  • David C. EversEmail author
  • Lucas J. Savoy
  • Christopher R. DeSorbo
  • David E. Yates
  • William Hanson
  • Kate M. Taylor
  • Lori S. Siegel
  • John H. CooleyJr
  • Michael S. Bank
  • Andrew Major
  • Kenneth Munney
  • Barry F. Mower
  • Harry S. Vogel
  • Nina Schoch
  • Mark Pokras
  • Morgan W. Goodale
  • Jeff Fair


Anthropogenic inputs of mercury (Hg) into the environment have significantly increased in the past century. Concurrently, the availability of methylmercury (MeHg) in aquatic systems has increased to levels posing risks to ecological and human health. We use the common loon (Gavia immer) as an upper trophic level bioindicator of aquatic Hg toxicity in freshwater lakes. Multiple endpoints were selected to measure potential negative impacts from MeHg body burdens on behavior, physiology, survival and reproductive success. A robust spatio-temporal dataset was used that included nearly 5,500 loon Hg measurements over an 18-year period. We measured significant changes related to elevated MeHg body burdens, including aberrant incubation behavior, lethargy, and wing area asymmetry. Mercury body burdens in adult loons increased an average of 8.4% per year. Increasing Hg body burdens reduced the number of fledged chicks per territorial pair, with highest risk loons producing 41% fewer fledged young than our reference group. Our multiple endpoints establish adverse effect thresholds for adult loons at 3.0 ug/g (wet weight) in blood and 40.0 ug/g (fresh weight) in feathers. Mercury contamination in parts of Maine and New Hampshire is a driving stressor for creating breeding population sinks. Standardized monitoring programs are needed to determine if population sinks occur elsewhere and to track aquatic ecosystem responses to changes in Hg emissions and deposition.


Mercury Common loon Population sink Adverse effects Behavior 



This study was and continues to be an extensive effort of BRI’s International Center for Loon Conservation. Numerous individuals, organizations and agencies assisted with this study. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, FPL Energy Maine Hydro, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Rawson Wood were instrumental for funding major aspects of this study. Robert Poppenga of the University of Pennsylvania supervised lab analysis for mercury in blood and feathers, and Robert Taylor of Texas A&M’s Trace Element Research Laboratory analyzed egg mercury levels. EarthWatch Institute volunteers assisted with the collection of behavioral observations. This study was integrated into the workscope of the Northeast Loon Study Working Group (NELSWG), a coalition of state and federal agency representatives, universities, non-profit organizations and other interested parties and members. We thank all members of NELSWG and the many field staff and volunteers who contributed their expertise and enthusiasm to this study.


  1. Altmann J (1974) Observational study of behavior: sampling method. Behaviour 49:227–267Google Scholar
  2. Atwell L, Hobson KA, Welch H (1998) Biomagnification and bioaccumulation of mercury in an arctic marine food web: insights from stable nitrogen isotope analysis. Can J Aquatic Sci 55:1114–1121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barr JF (1986) Population dynamics of the common loon (Gavia immer) associated with mercury-contaminated waters in northwestern Ontario. Occ. Paper 56, Can. Wildl. Serv., Ottawa, ON, CanadaGoogle Scholar
  4. Bearhop S, Ruxton GD, Furness RW (2000) Dynamics of mercury in blood and feathers of Great Skuas. Environ Toxicol Chem 19:1638–1643CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bouton SN, Frederick PC, Spalding MG, McGill H (1999) Effects of chronic, low concentrations of dietary methylmercury on the behavior of juvenile Great Egrets. Environ Toxicol Chem 18:1934–1939CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bradley DW (1985) The effects of visibility bias on time-activity budget estimates of niche breadth and overlap. Auk 102:493–499Google Scholar
  7. Brasso RL, Cristol DA (this issue) Effects of mercury exposure on reproductive success of tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Ecotoxicology doi:  10.1007/s10646-007-0163-z
  8. Braune BM, Mallory ML, Gilchrist HG (2006) Elevated mercury levels in declining population of ivory gulls in the Canadian Arctic. Marine Poll Bull 52:969–987CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brown RC, Brown MB (1998) Intense natural selection on body size and wing and tail asymmetry in cliff swallows during severe weather. Evolution 52:1461–1475CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Burger J (1993) Metals in avian feathers: bioindicators of environmental pollution. Reviews in Environ Toxicol 5:203–311Google Scholar
  11. Burgess NM, Hobson KA (2006) Bioaccumulation of mercury in yellow perch (Perca flavescens) and common loons (Gavia immer) in relation to lake chemistry in Atlantic Canada. Hydrobiologia 567:275–282CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Burgess NM, Meyer MW (this issue) Methylmercury exposure associated with reduced productivity in common loons. Ecotoxicology doi:  10.1007/s10646-007-0167-8
  13. Burgess NM, Evers DC, Kaplan JD (2005) Mercury and other contaminants in common loons breeding in Atlantic Canada. Ecotoxicology 14:241–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cabana G, Rasmussen JB (1994) Modelling food chain structure and contaminant bioaccumulation using stable nitrogen isotopes. Nature 372:255–257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Champoux L, Masse DC, Evers DC, Lane O, Plante M, Timmerman STA (2006) Assessment of mercury exposure and potential effects on Common Loons (Gavia immer) in Quebec. Hydrobiologia 567:263–274CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Chastel O, Weimerskirch H, Jouventin P (1995) Influence of body condition on reproductive decision and reproductive success in the blue petrel. Auk 112:964–972Google Scholar
  17. Clarke G (1995) Relationships between developmental stability and fitness: application for conservation biology. Conserv Biol 9:18–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Counard CJ (2000) Mercury exposure and effects on Common Loon (Gavia immer) behavior in the Upper Midwestern United States. Unpublished MS thesis, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MNGoogle Scholar
  19. Dhar AK, Pokras MA, Garcia DK, Evers DC, Gordon ZJ, Alcivar-Warren A (1997) Analysis of genetic diversity in common loon Gavia immer using RAPD and mitochondrial RFLP techniques. Mol Ecol 6:581–586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Driscoll CT, Lawrence GB, Bulger AJ, Butler TJ, Cronan CS, Eagar C, Lambert KF, Likens GE, Stoddard JL, Weathers KC (2001) The effects of acidic deposition in the northeastern United States include the acidification of soil and water, which stressors terrestrial and aquatic biota. BioScience 51:180–198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Driscoll CT, Han YJ, Chen CY, Evers DC, Lambert KF, Holsen TM, Kamman NC, Munson R (2007) Mercury contamination in remote forest and aquatic ecosystems in the northeastern U.S.: Sources, transformations and management options. BioScience 57:17–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Eeva T, Lehikoinen E, Nikinmaa M (2003) Pollution-induced nutritional stress in birds: an experimental study of direct and indirect effects. Ecol Appl 13:1242–1249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Emery K (2007) Genotoxicity in the common loon. M.S. thesis, Univ. Southern Maine, Portland, MEGoogle Scholar
  24. Evers DC (1994) Activity budgets of marked common loon (Gavia immer) nesting population. Hydrobiologia 270–280:415–420CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Evers DC (2001) Common Loon population studies: Continental mercury patterns and breeding territory philopatry. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. Minn., St. Paul, MNGoogle Scholar
  26. Evers DC (2006) Loons as biosentinels of aquatic integrity. Environ Bioindicators 1:18–21Google Scholar
  27. Evers DC (2007) Status assessment and conservation plan for the Common Loon in North America. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hadley, MAGoogle Scholar
  28. Evers DC, Kaplan JD, Meyer MW, Reaman PS, Braselton WE, Major A, Burgess N, Scheuhammer AM (1998) A geographic trend in mercury measured in common loon feather and blood. Environ Toxicol Chem 17:173–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Evers DC, Taylor KM, Major A, Taylor RJ, Poppenga RH, Scheuhammer AH (2003) Common loon eggs as indicators of methylmercury availability in North America. Ecotoxicology 12:69–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Evers DC, Lane OP, Savoy L, Goodale W (2004) Assessing the impacts of methylmercury on piscivorous wildlife using a wildlife criterion value based on the common loon, 1998–2003. Unpubl. report BRI 2004–05 submitted to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. BioDiversity Research Institute, Gorham, MEGoogle Scholar
  31. Evers DC, Burgess N, Champoux L, Hoskins B, Major A, Goodale W, Taylor R, Poppenga R, Daigle T (2005) Patterns and interpretation of mercury exposure in freshwater avian communities in northeastern North America. Ecotoxicology 14:193–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Evers DC, Han YJ, Driscoll CT, Kamman NC, Goodale MW, Lambert KF, Holsen TM, Chen CY, Clair TA, Butler T (2007) Identification and evaluation of biological hotspots of mercury in the Northeastern U.S. and Eastern Canada. BioScience 57:29–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Fournier F, Karasov WH, Kenow KP, Meyer MW, Hines RK (2002) The oral bioavailability and toxicokinetics of methylmercury in Common Loon (Gavia immer) chicks. Comp Biochem Phys Part A 133:703–714CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Franceschini MD (2007) Mercury and circulating corticosterone in common loons. PhD. Dissertation, Tufts Univ., Boston, MAGoogle Scholar
  35. Frederick PC, Hylton B, Heath JA, Spalding MG (2004) A historical record of mercury contamination in southern Florida (USA) as inferred from avian feather tissue. Environ Toxicol Chem 23:1474–1478CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Gostomski TJ, Evers DC (1998) Time-activity budget for common loons, Gavia immer, nesting on Lake Superior. Can-Field Natural 112:191–197Google Scholar
  37. Haefele HJ, Sidor J, Evers DC, Hoyt DE, Pokras MA (2005) Hematologic and physiologic reference ranges for free-living adult and young common loons (Gavia immer). J Zool Wildl Manage 36:385–350Google Scholar
  38. Harris R, Krabbenhoft DP, Mason R, Murray MW, Reash R, Saltman T (2007) Ecosystem responses to mercury contamination: Indicators of change. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FLGoogle Scholar
  39. Heinz GH (1996) Mercury poisoning in wildlife. In: Fairbrother A, Locke LN, Hoff GL (eds) Noninfectious diseases of wildlife, 2nd edn. Iowa State University Press, Ames, IA, pp 118–127Google Scholar
  40. Helm B, Albrecht H (2000) Human handedness causes directional asymmetry in avian wing length measurements. Anim Behav 60:899–902CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Henny CJ, Hill EF, Hoffman DJ, Spalding MG, Grove RA (2002) Nineteenth century mercury: hazard to wading birds and cormorants of the Carson River, Nevada. Ecotoxicology 11:213–231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Hoffman DJ, Spalding MG, Frederick PC (2005) Subchronic effects of methylmercury on plasma and organ biochemistries in great egret nestlings. Environ Toxicol Chem 24:3078–3084CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Jeremiason JD, Engstrom DR, Swain EB, Nater EA, Johnson BM, Almendinger JE, Monson BA, Kolka RK (2006) Sulfate addition increases methylmercury production in an experimental wetland. Environ Sci Technol 40:3800–3806CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kenow KP, Gutreuter S, Hines RK, Meyer MW, Fournier F, Karasov WH (2003) Effects of methyl mercury exposure on the growth of juvenile common loons. Ecotoxicology 12:171–182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kenow KP, Grasman KA, Hines RK, Meyer MW, Gendron-Fitzpatrick A, Spalding MG, Gray BR (2007) Effects of methylmercury exposure on the immune function of juvenile common loons (Gavia immer). Environ Toxicol Chem 26:1460–1469CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Mager JN (1995) A comparison of the time-activity budgets of breeding male and female Common Loons (Gavia immer). M.S. thesis, Miami Univ., Oxford, OHGoogle Scholar
  47. Mager JN, Walcott CW, Evers DC (2007) Macrogeographic variation in the body size and territorial vocalizations of male common loons (Gavia immer). Waterbirds 30:64–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Martin P, Bateson P (1993) Measuring behavior: an introductory guide. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  49. Mason R, Abbot M, Bodaly D, Bullock R, Driscoll C, Evers D, Lindberg S, Murray M, Swain E (2005) Monitoring the environmental response to changes in mercury contamination from the atmosphere: a multi-media challenge. Environ Sci Technol 39:15A–22ACrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Meyer MW, Evers DC, Hartigan JJ, Rasmussen PS (1998) Patterns of common loon (Gavia immer) mercury exposure, reproduction, and survival in Wisconsin, USA. Environ Toxicol Chem 17:184–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Miller EK, Vanarsdale A, Keeler GJ, Chalmers A, Poissant L, Kamman NC, Brulotte R (2005) Estimation and mapping of wet and dry mercury deposition across northeastern North America. Ecotoxicology 14:53–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Mills JA (1989) Red-billed gulls. In: Newton I (ed) Lifetime reproduction in birds. Academic Press, San Diego, CA, pp 387–404Google Scholar
  53. Mitro MG, Evers DC, Meyer MW, Piper WH (2007) Common loon survival rates and mercury in New England and Wisconsin. J Wildl Manage, in pressGoogle Scholar
  54. Moller A, Swaddle J (1997) Asymmetry, developmental stability, and evolution. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  55. Monteiro LR, Furness RW (2001) Kinetics, dose-response, excretion, and toxicity of methylmercury in free-living Cory’s shearwater chicks. Environ Toxicol Chem 20:1816–1824CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Murphy M (1996) Energetics and nutrition of molt. In: Carey C (ed) Avian energetics and nutritional ecology. Chapman and Hall, New York, pp 158–198Google Scholar
  57. Nacci D, Pelletier M, Lake J, Bennett R, Nichols J, Haebler R, Grear J, Kuhn A, Copeland J, Nicholson M, Walters S, Munns WR Jr (2005) An approach to predict risks to wildlife populations from mercury and other stressors. Ecotoxicology 14:283–293CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Newland MC (2002) Neurobehavioral toxicity of methylmercury and PCBs: effects-profiles and sensitive populations. Environ Toxicol Pharm 12:119–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Newton I (1989) Lifetime reproduction in birds. Academic Press, San Diego, CAGoogle Scholar
  60. Nocera J, Taylor P (1998) In situ behavioral response of common loons associated with elevated mercury exposure. Conserv Ecol 2(2):10Google Scholar
  61. Olsen B, Evers DC, DeSorbo C (2000) Effect of methylated mercury on the diving frequency of the Common Loon. J Ecol Res 2:67–72Google Scholar
  62. Paruk JD (2000) Incubating roles and patterns in Common Loons, pp 50–54. In: McIntyre J, Evers DC (eds) Loons: old history and new findings. Proc. of a Symposium from the 1997 meeting, American Ornithologists’ Union. N. Am. Loon Fund, Holderness, NHGoogle Scholar
  63. Piper WH, Walcott C, Mager JN, Perala M, Tischler KB, Harrington E, Turcotte AJ, Schwabenlander M, Banfield N (2006) Prospecting in a solitary breeder: chick production elicits territorial intrusions in common loons. Behav Ecol 17:881–888CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Polak M, Trivers R (1994) The science of symmetry in biology. Trends Ecol Evol 9:122–124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. SAS Institute (1999) JMP Statistical discovery software. SAS Institute, Cary, NCGoogle Scholar
  66. Scheuhammer AM (1991) Effects of acidification on the availability of toxic metals and calcium to wild birds and mammals. Environ Poll 71:329–375CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Scheuhammer AM, Atchison CM, Wong AHK, Evers DC (1998) Mercury exposure in breeding common loons (Gavia immer) in central Ontario, Canada. Environ Toxicol Chem 17:191–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Scheuhammer AM, Perrault JA, Bond DE (2001) Mercury, methylmercury, and selenium concentrations in eggs of Common Loons (Gavia immer) from Canada. Environ Monitor Assess 72:79–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Scheuhammer AM, Meyer MW, Sandheinrich MB, Murray MW (2007) Effects of environmental methylmercury on the health of wild birds, mammals, and fish. AMBIO: J Human Environ 36:12–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Scheuhammer AM, Basu AM, Burgess N, Elliot NM, Campbell JE, Wayland GD, Chapoux M, Rodgrigue J. (this issue) Relationships among mercury, selenium, and neurochemical parameters in common loons (Gavia immer) and bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Ecotoxicology doi:  10.1007/s10646-007-0170-0
  71. Schwarzbach SE, Albertson JD, Thomas CM (2006) Effects of predation, flooding, and contamination on reproductive success of California clapper rails (Rallus longirostris obsoletus) in San Francisco Bay. Auk 123:45–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Selin NE (2005) Mercury rising: is global action needed to protect human health and the environment. Environment 47:22–35Google Scholar
  73. Spalding MG, Frederick PC, McGill HC, Bouton SN, Richey LJ, Schumacher M, Blackmore CG, Harrison J (2000) Histologic, neurologic, and immunologic effects of methylmercury in captive great egrets. J Wildl Dis 36:423–435Google Scholar
  74. Swaddle JP (1997) Within-individual changes in developmental stability affect flight performance. Behav Ecol 8:601–604CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Sydeman WJ, Penniman JF, Penniman TM, Pyle P, Ainley DG (1991) Breeding performance in the Western Gull: effects of parental age, timing of breeding and year in relation to food availability J Anim Ecol 60:135–149CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Systat (2006). SigmaPlot 10. Systat software, Inc., Pt. Richmond, CAGoogle Scholar
  77. Tacha TC, Vohs PA, Iverson GC (1985) A comparison of interval and continuous sampling methods for behavioral observations. J Field Ornithol 56:258–264Google Scholar
  78. Tan B (1989) Extent and effect of acid precipitation in northeastern United States and eastern Canada Arch. Environ Contam Toxicol 18:55–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Taylor KM, Vogel H (2000) New Hampshire report. In: McIntyre J, Evers DC (eds) Loons: Old history and new findings. Proc. Symp. 1997 meeting, Am. Ornith. Union. N. Am. Loon Fund, Holderness, NH, pp 110–113Google Scholar
  80. Thompson DR (1996) Mercury in birds and terrestrial animals. In: Beyer WN, Heinz GH, Redmon-Norwood AW (eds) Environmental contaminants in wildlife: interpreting tissue concentrations. Lewis Publisher, Clemson, SC, pp 341–355 Google Scholar
  81. Thompson DR, Hamer KC, Furness RW (1991) Mercury accumulation in great skuas Catharacta skua of known age and sex, and its effects upon breeding and survival. J Applied Ecol 28:672–684CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) 1998. Mercury in solids and solutions by thermal decomposition, amalgamation, and atomic absorption spectrophotometry. EPA Method 7473 Report, January 1998. 15 pGoogle Scholar
  83. Webber HM, Haines TA (2003) Mercury effects on predator avoidance behavior of a forage fish, golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas). Environ Toxicol Chem 22:556–581CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Wolfe MF, Atkeson T, Bowerman W, Burger K, Evers DC, Murray MW, Zillioux E (2007) Wildlife indicators. In: Harris R, Krabbenhoft DP, Mason R, Murray MW, Reash R, Saltman T (eds) Ecosystem response to mercury contamination: indicators of change. CRC Press, SETAC, Webster, NY, pp 123–189Google Scholar
  85. Wolfe M, Schwarzbach FS, Sulaiman RA (1998) Effects of mercury on wildlife: a comprehensive review. Environ Toxicol Chem 17:146–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Wooller RD, Bradley JS, Serventy DL, Skira IJ (1988) Factors contributing to reproductive success in short-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus tenuirostris). Proc Int Ornithol Congr 19:848–856Google Scholar
  87. Yablokov AV (1986) Population biology: progress and problems of studies on natural populations. Moscow: MirGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • David C. Evers
    • 1
    Email author
  • Lucas J. Savoy
    • 1
  • Christopher R. DeSorbo
    • 1
  • David E. Yates
    • 1
  • William Hanson
    • 2
  • Kate M. Taylor
    • 1
    • 3
  • Lori S. Siegel
    • 1
    • 4
  • John H. CooleyJr
    • 3
  • Michael S. Bank
    • 5
  • Andrew Major
    • 6
  • Kenneth Munney
    • 6
  • Barry F. Mower
    • 7
  • Harry S. Vogel
    • 3
  • Nina Schoch
    • 8
  • Mark Pokras
    • 9
  • Morgan W. Goodale
    • 1
  • Jeff Fair
    • 10
  1. 1.BioDiversity Research InstituteGorhamUSA
  2. 2.FPL Energy Maine HydroWatervilleUSA
  3. 3.Loon Preservation CommitteeMoultonboroughUSA
  4. 4.Siegel Environmental Dynamics, LLCHanoverUSA
  5. 5.Department of Environmental HealthHarvard UniversityBostonUSA
  6. 6.U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceConcordUSA
  7. 7.Maine Department of Environmental ProtectionAugustaUSA
  8. 8.Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack ProgramNew YorkUSA
  9. 9.Tufts UniversityNorth GraftonUSA
  10. 10.Fairwinds Wildlife ServicesPalmerUSA

Personalised recommendations