Scientists find Evidence of Alaskan Ecosystem Health in Harlequin Ducks

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A new study shows that harlequin ducks in coastal areas of Alaska’s Kodiak and Unalaska islands are exposed to environmental sources of mercury and that mercury concentrations in their blood are associated with their local food source, mainly blue mussels.

“In North America and in Europe, some waterfowl species have long served as important indicators of ecological health,” said Lucas Savoy, director of Biodiversity Research Institute’s waterfowl program and lead author on the paper. “The process of collecting samples, such as blood and feathers, provides important information on the overall health of an individual bird, a population, and the environment that wildlife and humans share and rely on for survival.”

Conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the BRI led study, carried out over a three-year period, focused on two geographically distinct locations in southwest Alaska, Kodiak and Unalaska islands.

“Efforts such as this that document contaminant exposure and evaluate risks to wildlife are a prerequisite step in informing the general public and natural resource management officials about wildlife and ecosystem health,” says Paul Flint, a research wildlife biologist of the USGS, and co-author of the paper.

The new study builds on a history of collaborative and independent research by BRI and the USGS to understand the level of mercury in wildlife and habitats of Alaska and inform the public and other stakeholders about these findings. 

The scientific paper Geographic and temporal patterns of variation in total mercury concentrations in blood of harlequin ducks and blue mussels from Alaska was published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

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Biodiversity Research Institute, headquartered in Portland, Maine, is a nonprofit ecological research group whose mission is to assess emerging threats to wildlife and ecosystems through collaborative research, and to use scientific findings to advance environmental awareness and inform decision makers. BRI supports ten research programs within three research centers including the Center for Mercury Studies, which was initiated in 2011.