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Paralytic shellfish toxins associated with Arctic Tern mortalities in Alaska

July 9, 2022

Harmful algal blooms produce biotoxins that can injure or kill fish, wildlife, and humans. These blooms occur naturally but have intensified in many locations globally due to recent climatic changes, including ocean warming. Such changes are especially pronounced in northern regions, where the effects of paralytic shellfish toxins (PSTs) on marine wildlife are of growing concern. In Alaska, seabird mortality events have increased in frequency, magnitude, and duration since 2015 alongside anomalously high ocean temperatures. Although starvation has been implicated as the apparent cause of death in many of these die-offs, saxitoxin (STX) and other PSTs have been identified as possible contributing factors. Here, we describe a mortality event at a nesting colony of Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea) near Juneau, Alaska in 2019 and report elevated concentrations of PSTs in bird, forage fish, and mussel samples. Concentrations of STX and other PSTs in tern tissues (2.5–51.2 µg 100g−1 STX-equivalents [STX-eq]) were of similar magnitude to those reported from other PST-induced bird die-offs. We documented high PST concentrations in blue mussels (>11,000 µg 100g−1 STX-eq; Mytilus edulis spp.) collected from nearby beaches, as well as in forage fish (up to 494 µg 100g−1 STX-eq) retrieved from Arctic Tern nests, thereby providing direct evidence of PST exposure via the terns’ prey. At maximum concentrations measured in this study, a single 5 g Pacific Sand Lance (Ammodytes personatus) could exceed the median lethal STX dose (LD50) currently estimated for birds, offering strong support for PSTs as a likely source of tern mortality. In addition to describing this localized bird mortality event, we used existing energetics data from adult and nestling Arctic Terns to calculate estimated cumulative daily PST exposure based on ecologically relevant concentrations in forage fish. Our estimates revealed potentially lethal levels of PST exposure even at relatively low (≤30 ug 100g−1 STX-eq) toxin concentrations in prey. These findings suggest that PSTs present a significant hazard to Arctic Terns and other northern seabirds and should be included in future investigations of avian mortality events as well as assessments of population health.

    Publication Year 2022
    Title Paralytic shellfish toxins associated with Arctic Tern mortalities in Alaska
    DOI 10.1016/j.hal.2022.102270
    Authors Caroline R. Van Hemert, John Harley, Gwen Baluss, Matthew M. Smith, Robert J. Dusek, Julia S. Lankton, D. Ransom Hardison, Sarah K. Schoen, Robert Kaler
    Publication Type Article
    Publication Subtype Journal Article
    Series Title Harmful Algae
    Index ID 70232693
    Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
    USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology WTEB; National Wildlife Health Center