The role of weather in mediating the effect of mercury exposure on reproductive success in tree swallows

Abstract

Mercury is a heavy metal that has contaminated countless ecosystems throughout the world. A large body of literature has documented reproductive, physiological, and behavioral impairments associated with mercury exposure in laboratory settings, but whether and how such effects are manifest in free-living populations remains poorly understood. The purpose of this study was to evaluate whether tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) breeding success at a site with high mercury exposure varied with ambient temperature or precipitation at various points in the breeding cycle. Tree swallows nesting along the South River had significantly elevated blood total mercury (mean ± SE: 3.03 ± 0.15 μg/g) compared to swallows breeding on reference sites (mean ± SE: 0.16 ± 0.005 μg/g). These high levels of mercury were associated with reduced hatching and fledging success, and contaminated birds produced approximately one less fledgling per nest than their reference counterparts. The magnitude of this difference was weather-dependent: unusually high ambient temperatures encountered early in the nestling period were associated with reduced reproductive output in contaminated, but not in reference, birds. In contrast, little effect of mercury on success of nestlings was observed when temperatures were cooler, and precipitation also had no detectable interaction with mercury. These results provide insight into mechanisms underlying reproductive effects of mercury. In addition, these findings underscore the importance of considering variable environmental conditions when assessing effects of contaminants on free-living wildlife. In particular, projections about the effects of global climate change on ecotoxicological impacts must take into account the kinds of weather-mediated effect demonstrated here.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the South River Science Team, Alena Arkhipov, Rebecka Brasso, Kjärstin Carlson-Drexler, Anne Condon, Ollie Ehlinger, Rachel Fovargue, Scott Friedman, Dana Hawley, Mikaela Howie, Ravi Jefferson-George, Sean Koebley, Elizabeth Langer, Maryse Leandre, Kevin Lonabaugh, Tom Meier, Adrian Monroe, Roshan Patel, John Schmerfeld, Haruka Wada, Ariel White and the many cooperative landowners of the Shenandoah Valley for support during this extensive field study. Funding was provided by E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, The Virginia Society of Ornithology, The Association of Field Ornithologists, The American Ornithologists’ Union, The Office of Vice Provost for Research at the College of William and Mary, National Science Foundation Grant UBM 0436318, and the William and Mary Undergraduate Science Education and Research Program sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Two anonymous reviewers greatly improved an earlier version of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kelly K. Hallinger.

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Hallinger, K.K., Cristol, D.A. The role of weather in mediating the effect of mercury exposure on reproductive success in tree swallows. Ecotoxicology 20, 1368–1377 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10646-011-0694-1

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Keywords

  • Climate
  • Heavy metal
  • Mercury
  • Tachycineta bicolor
  • Tree swallow
  • Weather