Mercury is a widespread, naturally occurring contaminant that biomagnifies in wetlands due to the methylation of this element by sulfate-reducing bacteria. Species that feed at the top trophic level within wetlands are predicted to have higher mercury loads compared to species feeding at lower trophic levels and are therefore often used for mercury biomonitoring. However, mechanisms for mercury bioaccumulation in sentinel species are often poorly understood, due to a lack of long-term studies or an inability to differentiate between confounding variables. We examined mercury bioaccumulation patterns in the whole blood of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) from a long-term mark-recapture study (1979–2017) in South Carolina, USA. Using a growth model and auxiliary information on predicted age at first capture, we differentiated between age- and size-related variation in mercury bioaccumulation, which are often confounded in alligators due to their determinate growth pattern. Contrary to predictions that the oldest or largest individuals were likely to have the highest mercury concentrations, our best-supported model indicated a peak in mercury concentration at 30–40 years of age, depending on the sex, and lower concentrations in the youngest and oldest animals. To evaluate the robustness of our findings, we re-analyzed data from a previously published study of mercury in alligators sampled at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Unlike the South Carolina data, the data from Florida contained minimal auxiliary information regarding age, yet the best supported model similarly indicated a peaked rather than increasing relationship between mercury and body size, a less-precise indicator of age. These findings highlight how long-term monitoring can differentiate between confounding variables (e.g., age and size) to better elucidate complex relationships between contaminant exposure and demographic factors in sentinel species.
|Title||Nonlinear patterns in mercury bioaccumulation in American alligators are a function of predicted age|
|Authors||A.J. Lawson, Clinton T. Moore, T.R. Rainwater, F.M. Nilsen, P.M. Wilkinson, R.H. Lowers, L.J. Jr Guillett, Katherine W. McFadden, Patrick G.R. Jodice|
|Publication Subtype||Journal Article|
|Series Title||Science of the Total Environment|
|Record Source||USGS Publications Warehouse|
|USGS Organization||Coop Res Unit Atlanta|