Monday 23 March 2015

Methyl mercury levels in the feathers of Ivory Gulls.

Ivory Gulls, Pagophila eburnean, are scavenging Seabirds found across the High Arctic. Their population in Canada has declined by 80-85% since the 1980s (the earliest dates for which records of the species are available), and currently comprises around 400-500 breeding pairs; as such the species is considered Near Threatened under the terms of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and Endangered within Canada. The reason for this decline is unclear, but could be related to environmental contamination by toxic chemicals, illegal harvesting of the Birds (particularly in Greenland, which is outside of Canada’s control) or alterations in sea ice conditions relating to climate change.

A study published in 2006 found that the eggs of Ivory Gulls had the highest concentrations of mercury recorded in any Arctic Bird. Mercury is a highly toxic metal released as an atmospheric pollutant by a variety of industrial processes, and Birds with high levels in their blood are known to suffer both a decline in overall health and a reduction in fertility. Mercury in its pure form is toxic, but does not tend to accumulate within bodies of organisms, but a small amount of the mercury that enters ecosystems is converted to methyl mercury, which is incorporated into tissues and bioaccumulates in food chains (which is to say that level of methyl mercury increases with each step up the food chain). Since Ivory Gulls primarily feed by scavenging Fish and Marine Mammal carcasses they are considered to be at or very close to the top of the food chain in Arctic ecosystems. As environmental mercury from elsewhere at on the Earth is known to accumulate at the poles, animals living in these environments, such as Ivory Gulls, are considered to be particularly at risk of mercury poisoning.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B: Biological Sciences on 18 March 2015, Alexander Bond of the Department of Biology at the University of Saskatchewan, Environment Canada and the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, Keith Hobson of Environment Canada and Brian Branfireun of the Department of Biology and Centre for Environment and Sustainability at Western University discuss the results of a study of methyl mercury levels in feathers from museum specimens collected from the Canadian Arctic and western Greenland between 1880 and 2004.

Mercury is known to be deposited in the feathers of Birds at a rate that directly corresponds to levels in the blood, and is therefore considered to be a good proxy. It is also possible to test mercury levels in feathers taken from living Birds, making a study of historic mercury levels in feathers useful for comparison in future studies (due to the declining nature of the species further tests on eggs are undesirable).

Adult ivory gull feeding on a seal carcass, Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Canada, 10 June 1989. Keith Hobson in Bond et al. (2015).

Firstly Bond et al. tested for ratios of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the feathers. These reflect the diet of the living Birds, so any dramatic shifts in these diets would result in a change in stable isotope ratios. Previous studies of long term mercury accumulation in the feathers of other Bird species have been hampered by shifts in feeding patterns, presumed to relate to human-induced environmental stresses, which make it hard to access whether the increase in mercury is due to higher levels in the environment or the shift in the feeding behaviour of the Birds. In the case of the Ivory Gulls, stable isotope ratios were found to remain constant throughout the period studied, suggesting that the diet of the Birds had not changed significantly over time.

Next a small subset of the feathers was taken from samples collected before 1900 and after 1975 and tested for total mercury. This is because many museum specimens were treated with mercury chloride preservative prior to the 1940s, which would prevent the use of analytical methods using total mercury in the study (which would be useful as a comparison of total mercury to methyl mercury would give an indication of the rate at which methyl mercury breaks down in museum specimens). This found that total mercury was much higher in the nineteenth century specimens, suggesting that they had indeed been treated with mercury-based preservatives.

Finally Bond et al. tested all the feathers for levels of methyl mercury. For this part of the study the Birds were divided into first-winter Birds and adults (pre-fledged Birds were not included in the study). Both first-winter Birds and adults were shown to have increasing levels of mercury across the time-period of the study, but this was higher in the adult Birds, suggesting that the mercury also accumulated in the bodies of the Birds during their lifetimes. The level of methyl mercury in the feathers of adult Birds increased from 0.09 μg per gram in 1880 to 4.11 μg per gram in 2004, i.e. 45 times as high in the latest samples as in the earliest, an increase of roughly 1.6% per year.

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