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Mercury and drought along the lower Carson River, Nevada: II. Snowy egret and black-crowned night-heron reproduction on Lahontan Reservoir, 1997–2006


Mercury concentrations in the floodplain of the Carson River Basin in northwestern Nevada are some of the highest ever reported in a natural system. Thus, a portion of the basin including Lahontan Reservoir was placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Natural Priorities List for research and cleanup. Preliminary studies indicated that reproduction in piscivorous birds may be at risk. Therefore, a 10-year study (1997–2006) was conducted to evaluate reproduction of snowy egrets (Egretta thula) and black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) nesting on Gull Island in Lahontan Reservoir. Special attention was given to the annual flow of the Carson River, the resultant fluctuation of this irrigation reservoir, and the annual exposure of snowy egrets and night-herons to methylmercury (MeHg). The dynamic character of the river due to flooding and drought (drought effect) influenced snowy egret and night-heron reproduction more so than did MeHg contamination of eggs. During an extended drought (2000–2004) in the middle of the study, snowy egret nests containing eggs with concentrations of MeHg (measured as total mercury [THg] ∼ 100% MeHg) ≥0.80 μg THg/g, ww, all failed, but in 1997 and 2006 (wet years with general flooding), substantial numbers of young were produced (but fewer than at nests where eggs contained <0.80 μg/g). Thus, a variable reproductive threshold of tolerance to MeHg may be associated with habitat quality (food type and abundance). Clearly, drought was the most important factor affecting snowy egret annual productivity. In contrast to snowy egrets, night-herons generally had fewer nests meeting the 0.80 μg THg/g criterion, and those above the criterion were less sensitive to mercury than were snowy egrets. Furthermore, night-herons appeared more tolerant of drought conditions than snowy egrets because they nested earlier, selected more protected nesting sites, and had a more generalist diet that provided additional food options including terrestrial organisms, which also reduced exposure to MeHg. A putative biological effect threshold of 2.0 μg THg/g in whole blood for young of both species was evaluated, which was frequently exceeded, but with no evidence, while still in the colony, of an association with direct mortality. An evaluation of physiological associations with blood residues and post-fledging survival will be presented in future reports in this series.

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We thank K. Penner and J. Sizemore, Nevada State Parks for assisting in field aspects of the study at Lahontan Reservoir. P. Bradley and associates, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Elko, assisted with field data collection at the reference site. W. Praskins (San Francisco, CA) and S. Taylor (Research Triangle Park, NC) coordinated the study for EPA, which partially funded this study. The use of trade, product, or firm names in this publication is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Correspondence to Charles J. Henny.

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Hill, E.F., Henny, C.J. & Grove, R.A. Mercury and drought along the lower Carson River, Nevada: II. Snowy egret and black-crowned night-heron reproduction on Lahontan Reservoir, 1997–2006. Ecotoxicology 17, 117–131 (2008).

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