Relationship between blood mercury levels and components of male song in Nelson’s sparrows (Ammodramus nelsoni)
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Mercury (Hg) adversely affects the health and behavior of exposed wildlife; however, behavioral effects remain largely unknown. Changes in avian singing behavior may affect a male’s fitness because song reveals male quality and thus influences female mate choice and male territory-holding ability. Nelson’s sparrows (Ammodramus nelsoni) live exclusively on salt marshes and risk high levels of Hg exposure and bioaccumulation. We recorded songs of male Nelson’s sparrows at two locations with different Hg exposure to determine if total blood Hg concentration was related to song characteristics, as previously reported for other species. Males with higher blood Hg levels sang at higher maximum tonal frequency, but blood Hg and site location did not influence low tonal frequency and bout duration, contrary to predictions based on other species. Within the contaminated site, Hg levels were related to bouts per minute and gap duration, such that males at that site sang faster songs. Hg influences hormones and alters brain development, raising questions about specific effects on the brains and singing behavior of male Nelson’s sparrows.