Fracked ecology: Response of aquatic trophic structure and mercury biomagnification dynamics in the Marcellus Shale Formation
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Unconventional natural gas development and hydraulic fracturing practices (fracking) are increasing worldwide due to global energy demands. Research has only recently begun to assess fracking impacts to surrounding environments, and very little research is aimed at determining effects on aquatic biodiversity and contaminant biomagnification. Twenty-seven remotely-located streams in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale basin were sampled during June and July of 2012 and 2013. At each stream, stream physiochemical properties, trophic biodiversity, and structure and mercury levels were assessed. We used δ15N, δ13C, and methyl mercury to determine whether changes in methyl mercury biomagnification were related to the fracking occurring within the streams’ watersheds. While we observed no difference in rates of biomagnificaion related to within-watershed fracking activities, we did observe elevated methyl mercury concentrations that were influenced by decreased stream pH, elevated dissolved stream water Hg values, decreased macroinvertebrate Index for Biotic Integrity scores, and lower Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, and Trichoptera macroinvertebrate richness at stream sites where fracking had occurred within their watershed. We documented the loss of scrapers from streams with the highest well densities, and no fish or no fish diversity at streams with documented frackwater fluid spills. Our results suggest fracking has the potential to alter aquatic biodiversity and methyl mercury concentrations at the base of food webs.
KeywordsAquatic ecology Biodiversity Biomagnification Hydraulic fracturing Stable isotopes Marcellus shale
The authors would like to thank the Colcom Foundation for providing primary funding for this project.
The authors would also like to thank Regina Lamendella, Nicole Marks, Elliot Perow, Alexander Weimer, Ryan Trexler, Alyssa Grube, Jacob Oster, Morgan Decker, and Krista Leibensperger who helped with field sampling and lab analysis. The authors would like to thank Kristen Brubaker for her help with GIS analysis, and Roy Nagle and Kimi Cunningham Grant for their thorough review of this manuscript which greatly improved its quality for submission. They would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers who significantly contributed to the focus and tact of the discussion. This work would not have been possible without the approval for sample collection by the PA Fish and Boat Commission and the Institute for Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at Juniata College. They would like to thank the Keystone Elk County Alliance in helping to provide housing for fieldwork. Finally, the authors would like to thank the many people they encountered in small towns, at hunting camps, on the roads, and in the woods, for their directions to sampling sites and their interest in and support of our research.
This study was funded by the Colcom Foundation (grant #1201603).
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Ethical approval for vertebrates
All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. We have an approved Institute for Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC # 20120503) through Juniata College, and collected all specimens under Christopher Grant’s scientific collector permit (#604) from the PA fish and boat commission.
Ethical approval for humans
This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.
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