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Bird mercury concentrations change rapidly as chicks age: Toxicological risk is highest at hatching and fledging

July 12, 2011

Toxicological risk of methylmercury exposure to juvenile birds is complex due to the highly transient nature of mercury concentrations as chicks age. We examined total mercury and methylmercury concentrations in blood, liver, kidney, muscle, and feathers of 111 Forster's tern (Sterna forsteri), 69 black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), and 43 American avocet (Recurvirostra americana) chicks as they aged from hatching through postfledging at wetlands that had either low or high mercury contamination in San Francisco Bay, California. For each waterbird species, internal tissue, and wetland, total mercury and methylmercury concentrations changed rapidly as chicks aged and exhibited a quadratic, U-shaped pattern from hatching through postfledging. Mercury concentrations were highest immediately after hatching, due to maternally deposited mercury in eggs, then rapidly declined as chicks aged and diluted their mercury body burden through growth in size and mercury depuration into growing feathers. Mercury concentrations then increased during fledging when mass gain and feather growth slowed, while chicks continued to acquire dietary mercury. In contrast to mercury in internal tissues, mercury concentrations in chick feathers were highly variable and declined linearly with age. For 58 recaptured Forster's tern chicks, the proportional change in blood mercury concentration was negatively related to the proportional change in body mass, but not to the amount of feathers or wing length. Thus, mercury concentrations declined more in chicks that gained more mass between sampling events. The U-shaped pattern of mercury concentrations from hatching to fledging indicates that juvenile birds may be at highest risk to methylmercury toxicity shortly after hatching when maternally deposited mercury concentrations are still high and again after fledging when opportunities for mass dilution and mercury excretion into feathers are limited.