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Explaining variation in Colorado songbird blood mercury using migratory behavior, foraging guild, and diet


Methylmercury is a contaminant of growing global concern that has been shown to accumulate in a variety of taxa, including songbirds. Birds in the same area can accumulate mercury to strikingly different levels. While diet and trophic level clearly play an important role in mercury bioaccumulation and biomagnification, other factors including foraging guilds and migratory behavior may influence mercury levels as well. Here we examine interspecific variation in blood mercury levels in songbirds living in the Fountain Creek watershed on the Front Range of Colorado. We found that the species with the highest mercury had blood mercury concentrations over 75 times higher than the species with the lowest levels. Carnivores had the highest blood mercury levels, but ground foraging and long distance migration also were correlated with higher mercury concentrations. This information may shed light on what species are most at risk from mercury pollution and help to target conservation resources at contaminated sites.

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Funding for this study was provided by a SEED grant from Colorado State University–Pueblo and support from the Biology Department and Colorado State University–Pueblo. We would like to thank the numerous undergraduate research assistants who helped with data collection including Audrey Curtis, Hilary Eisenbraun, Ashley Glasser, Bradley Gonzales, Ashley Minsnich, Austin Reed, Elizabeth Smith, and Alyssa Torres.

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Correspondence to Claire W. Varian-Ramos.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of Colorado State University–Pueblo and were approved by the University’s Animal Care and Use Committee (Assurance Number: A3425-01).

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Knutsen, C.J., Varian-Ramos, C.W. Explaining variation in Colorado songbird blood mercury using migratory behavior, foraging guild, and diet. Ecotoxicology (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10646-019-02141-y

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  • Bioaccumulation
  • Blood mercury
  • Interspecific variation
  • Methylmercury
  • Passeriformes