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Maternal transfer of mercury to songbird eggs

July 13, 2017

We evaluated the maternal transfer of mercury to eggs in songbirds, determined whether this relationship differed between songbird species, and developed equations for predicting mercury concentrations in eggs from maternal blood. We sampled blood and feathers from 44 house wren (Troglodytes aedon) and 34 tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) mothers and collected their full clutches (n = 476 eggs) within 3 days of clutch completion. Additionally, we sampled blood and feathers from 53 tree swallow mothers and randomly collected one egg from their clutches (n = 53 eggs) during mid to late incubation (6–10 days incubated) to evaluate whether the relationship varied with the timing of sampling the mother's blood. Mercury concentrations in eggs were positively correlated with mercury concentrations in maternal blood sampled at (1) the time of clutch completion for both house wrens (R2 = 0.97) and tree swallows (R2 = 0.97) and (2) during mid to late incubation for tree swallows (R2 = 0.71). The relationship between mercury concentrations in eggs and maternal blood did not differ with the stage of incubation when maternal blood was sampled. Importantly, the proportion of mercury transferred from mothers to their eggs decreased substantially with increasing blood mercury concentrations in tree swallows, but increased slightly with increasing blood mercury concentrations in house wrens. Additionally, the proportion of mercury transferred to eggs at the same maternal blood mercury concentration differed between species. Specifically, tree swallow mothers transferred 17%–107% more mercury to their eggs than house wren mothers over the observed mercury concentrations in maternal blood (0.15–1.92 μg/g ww). In contrast, mercury concentrations in eggs were not correlated with those in maternal feathers and, likewise, mercury concentrations in maternal blood were not correlated with those in feathers (all R2 < 0.01). We provide equations to translate mercury concentrations from maternal blood to eggs (and vice versa), which should facilitate comparisons among studies and help integrate toxicity benchmarks into a common tissue.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2017
Title Maternal transfer of mercury to songbird eggs
DOI 10.1016/j.envpol.2017.06.099
Authors Joshua T. Ackerman, C. Alex Hartman, Mark P. Herzog
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Pollution
Series Number
Index ID 70189492
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center