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Historic and contemporary mercury exposure and potential risk to yellow-billed loons (Gavia adamsii) breeding in Alaska and Canada

December 3, 2014

The Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii) is one of the rarest breeding birds in North America. Because of the small population size and patchy distribution, any stressor to its population is of concern. To determine risks posed by environmental mercury (Hg) loads, we captured 115 Yellow-billed Loons between 2002 and 2012 in the North American Arctic and sampled their blood and/or feather tissues and collected nine eggs. Museum samples from Yellow-billed Loons also were analyzed to examine potential changes in Hg exposure over time. An extensive database of published Hg concentrations and associated adverse effects in Common Loons (G. immer) is highly informative and representative for Yellow-billed Loons. Blood Hg concentrations reflect dietary uptake of methylmercury (MeHg) from breeding areas and are generally considered near background levels if less than 1.0 µg/g wet weight (ww). Feather (grown at wintering sites) and egg Hg concentrations can represent a mix of breeding and wintering dietary uptake of MeHg. Based on Common Loon studies, significant risk of reduced reproductive success generally occurs when adult Hg concentrations exceed 2.0 µg/g ww in blood, 20.0 µg/g fresh weight (fw) in flight feathers and 1.0 µg/g ww in eggs. Contemporary mercury concentrations for 176 total samples (across all study sites for 115 Yellow-billed Loons) ranged from 0.08 to 1.45 µg/g ww in blood, 3.0 to 24.9 µg/g fw in feathers and 0.21 to 1.23 µg/g ww in eggs. Mercury concentrations in blood, feather and egg tissues indicate that some individual Yellow-billed Loons in breeding populations across North America are at risk of lowered productivity resulting from Hg exposure. Most Yellow-billed Loons breeding in Alaska overwinter in marine waters of eastern Asia. Although blood Hg concentrations from most breeding loons in Alaska are within background levels, some individuals exhibit elevated feather and egg Hg concentrations, which likely indicate the uptake of MeHg originating from eastern Asia. Feather Hg concentrations tended to be highest in individuals overwintering farthest west (closer to Asia). A retrospective analysis of museum specimens (n = 25) found a two-fold increase in Yellow-billed Loon feather Hg concentrations from the pre-1920s (as early as 1845) to the present. The projected increase in Hg deposition (approximately four-fold by 2050) along with the uncertainty of Hg being released through the thawing of permafrost and Arctic sea ice suggest that Hg body burdens in Yellow-billed Loons may increase. These findings indicate that Hg is a current and potentially increasing environmental stressor for the Yellow-billed Loon and possibly other Nearctic-Palearctic migrant birds.

Publication Year 2014
Title Historic and contemporary mercury exposure and potential risk to yellow-billed loons (Gavia adamsii) breeding in Alaska and Canada
DOI 10.1675/063.037.sp117
Authors David C. Evers, Joel A. Schmutz, Niladri Basu, Christopher R. DeSorbo, Jeff Fair, Carrie E. Gray, James D. Paruk, Marie Perkins, Kevin Regan, Brian D. Uher-Koch, Kenneth G. Wright
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Waterbirds
Index ID 70134602
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology WTEB