Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 10–24 | Cite as

The relationships between mercury and selenium in plankton and fish from a tropical food web

  • Helena do A. Kehrig
  • Tércia G. Seixas
  • Elisabete A. Palermo
  • Aida P. Baêta
  • Christina W. Castelo-Branco
  • Olaf Malm
  • Isabel Moreira


Background, aim, and scope

Selenium (Se) has been shown to reduce mercury (Hg) bioavailability and trophic transfer in aquatic ecosystems. The study of methylmercury (MeHg) and Se bioaccumulation by plankton is therefore of great significance in order to obtain a better understanding of the estuarine processes concerning Hg and Se accumulation and biomagnification throughout the food web. In the western South Atlantic, few studies have documented trace element and MeHg in fish tissues. No previous study about trace elements and MeHg in plankton has been conducted concerning tropical marine food webs. Se, Hg, and MeHg were determined in two size classes of plankton, microplankton (70–290 μm) and mesoplankton (≥290 μm), and also in muscle tissues and livers of four fish species of different trophic levels (Mugil liza, a planktivorous fish; Bagre spp., an omnivorous fish; Micropogonias furnieri, a benthic carnivorous fish; and Centropomus undecimalis, a pelagic carnivorous fish) from a polluted estuary in the Brazilian Southeast coast, Guanabara Bay. Biological and ecological factors such as body length, feeding habits, and trophic transfer were considered in order to outline the relationships between these two elements. The differences in trace element levels among the different trophic levels were investigated.

Materials and methods

Fish were collected from July 2004 to August 2005 at Guanabara Bay. Plankton was collected from six locations within the bay in August 2005. Total mercury (THg) was determined by cold vapor atomic absorption spectrometry (CV-AAS) with sodium borohydride as a reducing agent. MeHg analysis was conducted by digesting samples with an alcoholic potassium hydroxide solution followed by dithizone-toluene extraction. MeHg was then identified and quantified in the toluene layer by gas chromatography with an electron capture detector (GC-ECD). Se was determined by AAS using graphite tube with Pin platform and Zeeman background correction.

Results and discussion

Total mercury, MeHg, and Se increased with plankton size class. THg and Se values were below 2.0 and 4.8 μg g−1 dry wt in microplankton and mesoplankton, respectively. A large excess of molar concentrations of Se in relation to THg was observed in both plankton size class and both fish tissues. Plankton presented the lowest concentrations of this element. In fish, the liver showed the highest THg and Se concentrations. THg and Se in muscle were higher in Centropomus undecimalis (3.4 and 25.5 nmol g−1) than in Micropogonias furnieri (2.9 and 15.3 nmol g−1), Bagre spp (1.3 and 3.4 nmol g−1) and Mugil liza (0.3 and 5.1 nmol g−1), respectively. The trophic transfer of THg and Se was observed between trophic levels from prey (considering microplankton and mesoplankton) to top predator (fish). The top predators in this ecosystem, Centropomus undecimalis and Micropogonias furnieri, presented similar MeHg concentrations in muscles and liver. Microplankton presented lower ratios of methylmercury to total mercury concentration (MeHg/THg) (34%) than those found in mesoplankton (69%) and in the muscle of planktivorous fish, Mugil liza (56%). The other fish species presented similar MeHg/THg in muscle tissue (of around 100%). M. liza showed lower MeHg/THg in the liver than C. undecimalis (35%), M. furnieri (31%) and Bagre spp. (22%). Significant positive linear relationships were observed between the molar concentrations of THg and Se in the muscle tissue of M. furnieri and M. liza. These fish species also showed significant inverse linear relationships between hepatic MeHg and Se, suggesting a strong antagonistic effect of Se on MeHg assimilation and accumulation.


Differences found among the concentrations THg, MeHg, and Se in microplankton, mesozooplankton, and fishes were probably related to the preferred prey and bioavailability of these elements in the marine environment. The increasing concentration of MeHg and Se at successively higher trophic levels of the food web of Guanabara Bay corresponds to a transfer between trophic levels from the lower trophic level to the top-level predator, suggesting that MeHg and Se were biomagnified throughout the food web. Hg and Se were positively correlated with the fish standard length, suggesting that larger and older fish bioaccumulated more of these trace elements. THg, MeHg, and Se were a function of the plankton size.

Recommendations and perspectives

There is a need to assess the role of selenium in mercury accumulation in tropical ecosystems. Without further studies of the speciation of selenium in livers of fishes from this region, the precise role of this element, if any, cannot be verified in positively affecting mercury accumulation. Further studies of this element in the study of marine species should include liver samples containing relatively high concentrations of mercury. A basin-wide survey of selenium in fishes is also recommended.


Biomagnification Feeding habits Fish tissues Mercury–selenium relationship Methylmercury Plankton Trophic transfer Tropical estuary 



The authors would like to extend their thanks for the financial support of the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq Proc 476735/2003-3). We are also grateful to the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (FAPERJ Proc 170998/2002) for the grant to Dr Helena do A. Kehrig's Post-doctoral Project “O Papel do Selênio na Acumulação e Biomagnificação do Metilmercúrio ao Longo da Cadeia Alimentar da Baía de Guanabara”. Special thanks to Dr. Monica F. Costa for the useful suggestions in the preparation of the manuscript and to Rachel Hauser Davis for her assistance in providing this English version.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Helena do A. Kehrig
    • 1
  • Tércia G. Seixas
    • 1
    • 2
  • Elisabete A. Palermo
    • 1
  • Aida P. Baêta
    • 2
  • Christina W. Castelo-Branco
    • 3
  • Olaf Malm
    • 1
  • Isabel Moreira
    • 2
  1. 1.Instituto de Biofísica Carlos Chagas FilhoUniversidade Federal do Rio de JaneiroRio de JaneiroBrazil
  2. 2.Departamento de QuímicaPontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de JaneiroRio de JaneiroBrazil
  3. 3.Departamento de ZoologiaCCBS, Universidade do Rio de JaneiroRio de JaneiroBrazil

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