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Mute swans: Natural (?) environmental indicators

January 1, 2004

The rapid expansion of the Chesapeake Bay's population of feral mute swans (Cygnus olar), coupled with a dramatic Bay-wide decline in submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), has fueled much of the current debate surrounding the need for a management plan to protect the aquatic food resources that are critical to many species native to the Bay. Crucial to this decision process is a sound understanding of the ecological ramifications of having the year-round presence of a large, nonnative, aquatic herbivore on the Bay. Ultimately, this will require a quantitative assessment of the ecological harm currently posed by mute swans before a biologically defensible management strategy can be developed. Unfortunately, very little new information specific to the Bay's mute swan population has been gathered since Reese first studied them in the late 1960s and 1970s. While the debate over what to do about the rapidly expanding mute swan population continues, there is much that can be gained from study of this beautiful intruder. Several recent studies of the feeding habits of mute swans have shown that mutes can provide a unique barometer, or indicator, of environmental conditions. Because of their reliance on SAV as a primary food source, monitoring the density of swans utilizing a particular area can give some indication of the status of the area's grass beds. This phenomenon was clearly demonstrated during the summer of 1999 when there was a dramatic decline in the number of swans observed around the Eastern Neck NWR, a traditional population stronghold. The shift in bird use was precipitated by a rapid, large-scale collapse of the area's aquatic grass beds, possibly the result of a prolonged drought. During the winter of 2000/2001, a similar ecological assessment was conducted by comparing body weights of swans collected from Tangier Sound, an area with relatively abundant grass beds, and swans from the waters adjacent to Eastern Neck Island. Swans weights tended to reflect the conditions of their surroundings, with the Tangier Sound birds being slightly heavier at the onset of the breeding season. Interestingly, the birds at Eastern Neck showed a 1 kg decline in weight after dispersal from their wintering locations and entered the breeding season with noticeably less subcutaneous fat than the birds sampled in Tangier Sound. The fact that mute swans are nonmigratory and feed exclusively on benthic food items makes them an ideal organ-ism to monitor the degree of contamination of sediments within the Bay. In 1995, we compared the accumulation of metals by mute swans and other waterfowl and related it to metal concentrations in the sediments from the areas where the birds were collected. This study led to the development of an exposure model that more accurately assesses the risk of exposure to environmental contaminants through incidental ingestion of sediments, as opposed to the traditional assessment of contaminant accumulation through the food chain. This sediment exposure pathway was subsequently shown to be the primary route of exposure of swans to metals in risk assessments conducted at two Superfund sites.

Publication Year 2004
Title Mute swans: Natural (?) environmental indicators
Authors D. Day
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 5211272
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Patuxent Wildlife Research Center