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Methylmercury exposure associated with reduced productivity in common loons

Abstract

Methylmercury can impair the reproduction of fish-eating wildlife. We measured lake pH, mercury (Hg) concentrations in small fish, blood Hg levels in adult male, female and juvenile common loons, and loon productivity from 120 lakes in Wisconsin, USA and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada (Maritimes). Mean lake pH was higher in Wisconsin than in the Maritimes. Body masses of adult loons and Hg concentrations in the blood of loons and in small fish were greater in the Maritimes. Hg levels in fish increased with lake acidity. Abundance of small fish increased in acidic lakes in the Maritimes. Blood Hg concentrations in adult and juvenile loons decreased with lake pH and increased with Hg levels in fish prey. Hg levels in male, female and juvenile loons were 22, 16 and 2.3 times greater than those in small fish. Loon Hg exposure, measured either as Hg levels in female loon blood or in fish prey, appeared to impose an upper limit on loon productivity. Loon productivity decreased as Hg exposure increased. Quantile regression analysis indicated that maximum observed loon productivity dropped 50% when fish Hg levels were 0.21 ug/g (wet wt), and failed completely when fish Hg concentrations were 0.41 ug/g.

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Acknowledgments

The Canadian portion of this study was conducted under banding, research and animal care permits from the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and Parks Canada. We thank Mike Duggan, Rob Tordon, Joe Nocera, David Evers, Joseph Kaplan, Nev Garrity, Inga Sidor, Cory Counard, Keren Tischler, Nikki Benjamin, Cheryl Frail, and Jessica Scott for their assistance with the loon field work in Canada. Generous support was provided by Cliff Drysdale, Peter Hope and Doug Clay of Parks Canada, Phil Taylor and Tony Diamond of the Atlantic Cooperative Wildlife Ecology Research Network, and Joe Kerekes and Richard Elliot of CWS. At NWRC, we thank Della Bond, Elyse Routhier, Peggy Dunlop, and Ewa Neugebauer for Hg analyses, the Tissue Prep Lab staff, and Keith Marshall. At ECL, we thank Fernand Hebert, Guy Brun and Abbey Ouellet for the fish Hg analyses. We thank Erin Barry Hanson and Allen Curry for sharing their New Brunswick fish data. Financial support came from Environment Canada’s Acid Rain and Wildlife Toxicology & Disease Programs. D. Evers and staff (BioDiversity Research Institute, Falmouth, Maine) trained Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) staff in loon capture and sampling techniques and participated in the collection of loon tissues in Wisconsin 1992–1996. Numerous field staff, including student interns, graduate students, technicians, University of Wisconsin faculty, and WDNR biologists have assisted in the capture of loons and collection of tissue samples during the study period. W. Piper and staff (Chapman University, Orange, CA), B. Fevold, and J. Hartigan also made significant contributions to the Wisconsin loon sample collection. Numerous private landowners on northern Wisconsin lakes generously provided access to their properties for the purpose of loon capture and sampling. Grant support for this project was received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Acid Deposition Research Council, Electric Power Research Institute, Wisconsin Utilities Association, Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, the North American Loon Fund, and the Milwaukee County Zoological Society. We thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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Correspondence to Neil M. Burgess.

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Burgess, N.M., Meyer, M.W. Methylmercury exposure associated with reduced productivity in common loons. Ecotoxicology 17, 83–91 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10646-007-0167-8

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Keywords

  • Common loon
  • Gavia immer
  • Mercury
  • Productivity
  • Reproductive success