Mercury, cadmium, copper, arsenic, and selenium measurements in the feathers of adult eastern brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis) and chicks in multiple breeding grounds in the northern Gulf of Mexico

Abstract

Several trace metals and metalloids have been introduced into aquatic ecosystems due to anthropogenic activities. Some of these elements like mercury (in the form of methylmercury) are easily transferred from one trophic level to another and can accumulate to toxic quantities in organisms at the top of aquatic food webs. For this reason, seabirds like the eastern brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis) are susceptible to heavy metal and metalloid toxicity and may warrant periodic monitoring. Mercury, cadmium, copper, arsenic, and selenium were measured in the feathers of adult brown pelicans and chicks in several breeding colonies (Shamrock Island, Chester Island, Marker 52 Island, North Deer Island, Raccoon Island, Felicity Island, Gaillard Island, Audubon Island, and Ten Palms Island) in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Overall, most chicks and adults examined had mercury levels in feathers that were below the concentration range in which birds show symptoms of mercury toxicity. However, chicks in the Audubon Island and Ten Palms Island colonies displayed mercury levels that were 3 times higher than values observed in 5 other colonies. In addition, several adults and chicks displayed selenium concentrations that are above what is considered safe for birds. Cadmium quantities in feathers were below levels that trigger toxicity in birds. Similarly, arsenic measurements were at quantities below the average of what has been reported for birds living in contaminated sites. Finally, we identify pelican breeding colonies that may warrant monitoring due to elevated levels of contaminants.

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Data availability

The dataset for this work can be accessed through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) (GRIIDC DOI: https://doi.org/10.7266/aza38gzz).

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Funding

This study was supported by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and US Geological Survey (Interagency Agreement # M12PG00014). Funding from the Harte Research Institute was used to conduct all chemical analysis. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

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Correspondence to Udonna Ndu.

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Field research was conducted with permission from the Clemson University Animal Care and Use Committee (2017-008). Permitting for field data collection was provided by the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab (22408) and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (BB-18-22).

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Ndu, U., Lamb, J., Janssen, S. et al. Mercury, cadmium, copper, arsenic, and selenium measurements in the feathers of adult eastern brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis) and chicks in multiple breeding grounds in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Environ Monit Assess 192, 286 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10661-020-8237-y

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Keywords

  • Heavy metals
  • Toxicity
  • Bioaccumulation
  • Seabird