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Disentangling the effects of habitat biogeochemistry, food web structure, and diet composition on mercury bioaccumulation in a wetland bird

October 4, 2019

Methylmercury (MeHg) is a globally pervasive contaminant with known toxicity to humans and wildlife. Several sources of variation can lead to spatial differences in MeHg bioaccumulation within a species including: biogeochemical processes that influence MeHg production and availability within an organism’s home range; trophic positions of consumers and MeHg biomagnification efficiency in food webs; and individual prey preferences that influence diet composition. To better understand spatial variation in MeHg bioaccumulation within a species, we evaluated the effects of habitat biogeochemistry, food web structure, and diet composition in the wetland-obligate California black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis coturniculus) at three wetlands along the Petaluma River in northern San Francisco Bay, California, USA. The concentration of MeHg in sediments differed significantly among wetlands. We identified three sediment and porewater measurements that contributed significantly to a discriminant function explaining differences in habitat biogeochemistry among wetlands: the porewater concentration of ferrous iron, the percent organic matter, and the sediment MeHg concentration. Food web structure and biomagnification efficiency were similar among wetlands, with trophic magnification factors for MeHg ranging from 1.84 to 2.59. In addition, regurgitation samples indicated that black rails were dietary generalists with similar diets among wetlands (percent similarity indices > 70%). Given the similarities in diet composition, food web structure, and MeHg biomagnification efficiency among wetlands, we concluded that variation in habitat biogeochemistry and associated sediment MeHg production was the primary driver of differences in MeHg concentrations among black rails from different wetlands.