Impacts of Sublethal Mercury Exposure on Birds: A Detailed Review

Part of the Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology book series (RECT, volume 244)

Abstract

Mercury is a ubiquitous environmental contaminant known to accumulate in, and negatively affect, fish-eating and oceanic bird species, and recently demonstrated to impact some terrestrial songbirds to a comparable extent. It can bioaccumulate to concentrations of >1 μg/g in tissues of prey organisms such as fish and insects. At high enough concentrations, exposure to mercury is lethal to birds. However, environmental exposures are usually far below the lethal concentrations established by dosing studies.

The objective of this review is to better understand the effects of sublethal exposure to mercury in birds. We restricted our survey of the literature to studies with at least some exposures >5 μg/g. The majority of sublethal effects were subtle and some studies of similar endpoints reached different conclusions. Strong support exists in the literature for the conclusion that mercury exposure reduces reproductive output, compromises immune function, and causes avoidance of high-energy behaviors. For some endpoints, notably certain measures of reproductive success, endocrine and neurological function, and body condition, there is weak or contradictory evidence of adverse effects and further study is required. There was no evidence that environmentally relevant mercury exposure affects longevity, but several of the sublethal effects identified likely do result in fitness reductions that could adversely impact populations. Overall, 72% of field studies and 91% of laboratory studies found evidence of deleterious effects of mercury on some endpoint, and thus we can conclude that mercury is harmful to birds, and the many effects on reproduction indicate that bird population declines may already be resulting from environmental mercury pollution.

Keywords

Avian Bald eagle Behavior Bird Common loon Dosing Ecotoxicology Effects Endocrine function Forster’s tern Hormones Immune function Longevity Mallard Metals Methylmercury Mercury Neurological function Reproduction Review Sublethal Survivorship Tree swallow White ibis Zebra finch 

Notes

Acknowledgments

This work was supported by National Science Foundation (IOS-1257590) as well as the American Ornithologists’ Union, Virginia Academy of Science, Williamsburg Bird Club, and College of William and Mary Graduate School. An early draft of this manuscript was sent to many active researchers in the field for their feedback, and we thank J. Ackerman, R. Brasso, B. Braune, A. Condon, T. and C. Custer, C. Henny, G. Heinz, A. Jackson, K. Kenow, J. Rutkiewicz, and C. Seewagen for their constructive comments.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biology, Institute for Integrative Bird Behavior StudiesThe College of William and MaryWilliamsburgUSA

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