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Ratios of methylmercury to total mercury in predator and primary consumer insects from Adirondack streams in New York State

November 1, 2020

Mercury (Hg) is a global pollutant that affects aquatic biota in otherwise pristine settings such as the Adirondack region of New York State. Bioaccumulation of Hg is especially problematic in sensitive landscapes, where inorganic mercury from atmospheric deposition is readily converted, via natural processes, to methylmercury (MeHg), the toxic form that is taken up and biomagnified in aquatic food webs. There is great interest in monitoring MeHg in aquatic biota across these sensitive regions to evaluate responses to changes in Hg emissions. Aquatic insects, such as dragonfly larvae, have great potential as MeHg “biosentinels,” but currently are not widely used for this purpose. An important practical consideration in the use of aquatic insects for MeHg biomonitoring is whether total mercury (THg) is a suitable surrogate for MeHg, which is much more technically challenging and expensive to analyze than is THg. The objective of this project was to assess the suitability of THg as a surrogate for MeHg in stream-dwelling insects. Specifically, existing data on immature aquatic insects from nine Adirondack streams were used to characterize MeHg to THg ratios (i.e., MeHg%), and variation in these ratios (e.g., among sites, seasons, taxa) in predator and primary consumer insects, examine how well THg in different groups tracks measured stream water MeHg (i.e., filtered MeHg; FMeHg), and explore the influence of trophic position (indicated by nitrogen stable isotopes; δ15N) on the observed MeHg% patterns.

Three broad insect feeding groups were included in this analysis: predators, shredders, and scrapers. Predators had the highest MeHg% (median 94%), and MeHg% did not differ significantly among any of the taxa considered: stoneflies, damselflies, and three families of dragonflies (darners, common skimmers, and clubtails). Darners and common skimmers, the most numerous and abundant predators, were combined for further analyses. Site medians for these “selected dragonflies” were all at least 90% (summer-fall collections) and MeHg% did not differ significantly among sites. The correlation between FMeHg and THg in selected dragonflies was nearly as strong as that of FMeHg and dragonfly MeHg. In contrast, median MeHg% in shredders (northern caddisflies) and scrapers (flathead mayflies), which are both primary consumers, was lower overall (medians 52% and 35%, respectively), more variable, and less-well representative of FMeHg than predators. Stable isotope results indicate that variation in feeding position is an important influence on some of the MeHg% patterns observed in this study. This study’s findings suggest that THg is likely to be a suitable surrogate for MeHg in predatory aquatic insects from Adirondack streams, but do not support the use of THg in primary consumers for regional MeHg monitoring.

Publication Year 2020
Title Ratios of methylmercury to total mercury in predator and primary consumer insects from Adirondack streams in New York State
Authors Karen Riva-Murray
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype State or Local Government Series
Series Title Summary Report
Series Number 20-32
Index ID 70217341
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New York Water Science Center