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Food web controls on mercury fluxes and fate in the Colorado River, Grand Canyon

May 13, 2020

Mercury (Hg) biomagnification in aquatic food webs is a global concern; yet, the ways species traits and interactions mediate these fluxes remain poorly understood. Few pathways dominated Hg flux in the Colorado River despite large spatial differences in food web complexity, and fluxes were mediated by one functional trait, predation resistance. New Zealand mudsnails are predator resistant and a trophic dead end for Hg in food webs we studied. Fishes preferred blackflies, which accounted for 56 to 80% of Hg flux to fishes, even where blackflies were rare. Food web properties, i.e., match/mismatch between insect production and fish consumption, governed amounts of Hg retained in the river versus exported to land. An experimental flood redistributed Hg fluxes in the simplified tailwater food web, but not in complex downstream food webs. Recognizing that species traits, species interactions, and disturbance mediate contaminant exposure can improve risk management of linked aquatic-terrestrial ecosystems.