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Mercury exposure of tidal marsh songbirds in the northeastern United States and its association with nest survival

November 16, 2021

The biogeochemistry of tidal marsh sediments facilitates the transformation of mercury (Hg) into the biologically available form methylmercury (MeHg), resulting in elevated Hg exposures to tidal marsh wildlife. Saltmarsh and Acadian Nelson’s sparrows (Ammospiza caudacutua and A. nelsoni subvirgatus, respectively) exclusively inhabit tidal marshes, potentially experiencing elevated risk to Hg exposure, and have experienced range-wide population declines. To characterize spatial and temporal variation of Hg exposure in these species, we sampled total mercury (THg) in blood collected from 9 populations spanning 560 km of coastline, including individuals resampled within and among years. Using concurrent nesting studies, we tested whether THg was correlated with nest survival probabilities, an index of fecundity. Blood THg ranged from 0.074–3.373 µg/g ww across 170 samples from 127 individuals. We detected high spatial variability in Hg exposure, observing differences of more than 45-fold across all individuals and 8-fold in mean blood THg among all study plots, including 4-fold between study plots within 4 km. Intraindividual changes in blood Hg exposure did not vary systematically in time but were considerable, varying by up to 2-fold within and among years. Controlling for both species differences and maximum water level, the dominant driver of fecundity in this system, nest survival probability decreased by 10% across the full range of female blood THg concentrations observed. We conclude that Hg has the potential to impair songbird reproduction, potentially exacerbating known climate-change driven population declines from sea-level rise in saltmarsh and Acadian Nelson’s sparrows.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Mercury exposure of tidal marsh songbirds in the northeastern United States and its association with nest survival
DOI 10.1007/s10646-021-02488-1
Authors Katherine J Ruskin, Garth Herring, Collin Eagles-Smith, Alyssa B. Eiklor, Chris S Elphick, Matthew A. Etterson, Chrisopher B. Field, Rebecca A. Longnecker, Adrienne I. Kovach, W Greg Shriver, James F. Walsh, Brian J. Olsen
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecotoxicology
Series Number
Index ID 70230113
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center