Relationships between blood mercury levels, reproduction, and return rate in a small seabird

Abstract

Mercury (Hg) is a ubiquitous heavy metal that occurs naturally in the environment, but its levels have been supplemented for decades by a variety of human activities. Mercury can have serious deleterious effects on a variety of organisms, with top predators being particularly susceptible because methylmercury bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in food webs. Among birds, seabirds can have especially high levels of Hg contamination and Leach’s storm-petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa), in particular, have amongst the highest known levels. Several populations of Leach’s storm-petrels have declined recently in the Northwest Atlantic. The causes of these declines remain uncertain, but the toxic effects of Hg could be a potential factor in this decline. Here, we tested for relationships between adult blood total Hg (THg) concentration and several offspring development parameters, and adult return rate of Leach’s storm-petrels breeding on Bon Portage Island (43° 28′ N, 65° 44′ W), Nova Scotia, Canada, between 2011 and 2015 (blood samples n = 20, 36, 6, 15, and 13 for each year, respectively). Overall, THg levels were elevated (0.78 ± 0.43 μg/g wet wt.) compared to other species of seabirds in this region, and varied significantly among years. However, we found no associations between THg levels and reproductive parameters or adult return rate. Our results indicate that levels of mercury observed in Leach’s storm-petrel blood, although elevated, appear not to adversely affect their offspring development or adult return rate on Bon Portage Island.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Erika Holland, Danielle Fife, and Madeline Sutton for their assistance in the field, and station manager Lee Adams for logistical support getting to and while on Bon Portage Island. Funding was provided through a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Post-Graduate Scholarship #407600–2011 to I. L. Pollet, Environment Canada, and Nova Scotia Habitat Conservation Fund # NSHCF 16–15 (via monies from hunters and trappers) to D. Shutler and I. Pollet, and through the Canada Research Chairs program and an NSERC Discovery Grant # 341960–2013 to N. J. O’Driscoll. We also thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and editorial suggestions.

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Correspondence to Ingrid L. Pollet.

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Pollet, I.L., Leonard, M.L., O’Driscoll, N.J. et al. Relationships between blood mercury levels, reproduction, and return rate in a small seabird. Ecotoxicology 26, 97–103 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10646-016-1745-4

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Keywords

  • Leach’s storm-petrel
  • Mercury
  • Oceanodroma leucorhoa
  • Reproduction