Factors affecting MeHg bioaccumulation in stream biota: the role of dissolved organic carbon and diet

  • Hannah J. BroadleyEmail author
  • Kathryn L. Cottingham
  • Nicholas A. Baer
  • Kathleen C. Weathers
  • Holly A. Ewing
  • Ramsa Chaves-Ulloa
  • Jessica Chickering
  • Adam M. Wilson
  • Jenisha Shrestha
  • Celia Y. Chen


The bioaccumulation of the neurotoxin methylmercury (MeHg) in freshwater ecosystems is thought to be mediated by both water chemistry (e.g., dissolved organic carbon [DOC] and dissolved mercury [Hg]) and diet (e.g., trophic position and diet composition). Hg in small streams is of particular interest given their role as a link between terrestrial and aquatic processes. Terrestrial processes determine the quantity and quality of streamwater DOC, which in turn influence the quantity and bioavailability of dissolved MeHg. To better understand the effects of water chemistry and diet on Hg bioaccumulation in stream biota, we measured DOC and dissolved Hg in stream water and mercury concentration in three benthic invertebrate taxa and three fish species across up to 12 tributary streams in a forested watershed in New Hampshire, USA. As expected, dissolved total mercury (THg) and MeHg concentrations increased linearly with DOC. However, mercury concentrations in fish and invertebrates varied non-linearly, with maximum bioaccumulation at intermediate DOC concentrations, which suggests that MeHg bioavailability may be reduced at high levels of DOC. Further, MeHg and THg concentrations in invertebrates and fish, respectively, increased with δ15N (suggesting trophic position) but were not associated with δ13C. These results show that even though MeHg in water is strongly determined by DOC concentrations, mercury bioaccumulation in stream food webs is the result of both MeHg availability in stream water and trophic position.


Methylmercury Accumulation Food web Watershed Biogeochemical factors Stable isotopes 



We are grateful to Vivien Taylor, Arthur Baker, and Brian Jackson for analysis of MeHg samples, David Fischer of the Cary Institute for DOC analysis, and Amanda Lindsey and Bethel Steele for technical assistance. We thank the Lake Sunapee Protective Association (LSPA) for logistical support. This research was made possible by an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National institutes of Health, grant number P20GM103506 to Dr. Ronald Taylor, and the Dartmouth Superfund Research Program funded by NIH Grant Number P42 ES007373 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to Dr. Celia Chen. This manuscript was finalized while KLC was serving at the National Science Foundation.

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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

10646_2019_2086_MOESM1_ESM.docx (1.1 mb)
Supplementary Information


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental ConservationUniversity of MassachusettsAmherstUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological SciencesDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA
  3. 3.Environmental Studies ProgramBates CollegeLewistonUSA
  4. 4.Department of Natural and Environmental SciencesColby-Sawyer CollegeNew LondonUSA
  5. 5.Cary Institute of Ecosystem StudiesMillbrookUSA
  6. 6.Department of General EducationWestern Governors UniversitySalt Lake CityUSA

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