The threat of global mercury pollution to bird migration: potential mechanisms and current evidence

  • Chad L. Seewagen


Mercury is a global pollutant that has been widely shown to adversely affect reproduction and other endpoints related to fitness and health in birds, but almost nothing is known about its effects on migration relative to other life cycle processes. Here I consider the physiological and histological effects that mercury is known to have on non-migrating birds and non-avian vertebrates to identify potential mechanisms by which mercury might hinder migration performance. I posit that the broad ability of mercury to inactivate enzymes and compromise the function of other proteins is a single mechanism by which mercury has strong potential to disrupt many of the physiological processes that make long-distance migration possible. In just this way alone, there is reason to expect mercury to interfere with navigation, flight endurance, oxidative balance, and stopover refueling. Navigation and flight could be further affected by neurotoxic effects of mercury on the brain regions that process geomagnetic information from the visual system and control biomechanics, respectively. Interference with photochemical reactions in the retina and decreases in scotopic vision sensitivity caused by mercury also have the potential to disrupt visual-based magnetic navigation. Finally, migration performance and possibly survival might be limited by the immunosuppressive effects of mercury on birds at a time when exposure to novel pathogens and parasites is great. I conclude that mercury pollution is likely to be further challenging what is already often the most difficult and perilous phase of a migratory bird’s annual cycle, potentially contributing to global declines in migratory bird populations.


Methylmercury Migratory Navigation Long-distance flight Stopover Oxidative stress Immunocompetence 



Daniel A. Cristol, Alexander R. Gerson, Yanju Ma, Christopher G. Guglielmo, and three anonymous reviewers provided helpful ideas and comments on previous versions of the manuscript. I also thank Daniel Cristol for the invitation and encouragement to write this article for the Special Issue. Financial support for the preparation of the manuscript was provided by the Great Hollow Nature Preserve & Ecological Research Center.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Great Hollow Nature Preserve & Ecological Research CenterNew FairfieldUSA

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