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Species differences in the sensitivity of avian embryos to methylmercury

January 1, 2009

We injected doses of methylmercury into the air cells of eggs of 26 species of birds and examined the dose-response curves of embryo survival. For 23 species we had adequate data to calculate the median lethal concentration (LC50). Based on the dose-response curves and LC50s, we ranked species according to their sensitivity to injected methylmercury. Although the previously published embryotoxic threshold of mercury in game farm mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) has been used as a default value to protect wild species of birds, we found that, relative to other species, mallard embryos are not very sensitive to injected methylmercury; their LC50 was 1.79 ug/g mercury on a wet-weight basis. Other species we categorized as also exhibiting relatively low sensitivity to injected methylmercury (their LC50s were 1 ug/g mercury or higher) were the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), lesser scaup (Aythya affinis), Canada goose (Branta canadensis), double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), and laughing gull (Larus atricilla). Species we categorized as having medium sensitivity (their LC50s were greater than 0.25 ug/g mercury but less than 1 ug/g mercury) were the clapper rail (Rallus longirostris), sandhill crane (Grus canadensis), ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), chicken (Gallus gallus), common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), herring gull (Larus argentatus), common tern (S terna hirundo), royal tern (Sterna maxima), Caspian tern (Sterna caspia), great egret (Ardea alba), brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), and anhinga (Anhinga anhinga). Species we categorized as exhibiting high sensitivity (their LC50s were less than 0.25 ug/g mercury) were the American kestrel (Falco sparverius), osprey (Pandion haliaetus), white ibis (Eudocimus albus), snowy egret (Egretta thula), and tri-colored heron (Egretta tricolor). For mallards, chickens, and ring-necked pheasants (all species for which we could compare the toxicity of our injected methylmercury with that of published reports where methylmercury was fed to breeding adults and was deposited into the egg by the mother), we found the injected mercury to be more toxic than the same amount of mercury deposited naturally by the mother. The rank order of sensitivity of these same three species to methylmercury was, however, the same whether the methylmercury was injected or maternally deposited in the egg (i.e., the ring-necked pheasant was more sensitive than the chicken, which was more sensitive than the mallard). It is important to note that the dose-response curves and LC50s derived from our egg injections are useful for ranking the sensitivities of various species but are not identical to the LC50s that would be observed if the mother bird had put the same concentrations of mercury into her eggs; the LC50s of maternally deposited methylmercury would be higher.

Publication Year 2009
Title Species differences in the sensitivity of avian embryos to methylmercury
Authors G. H. Heinz, D. J. Hoffman, J.D. Klimstra, K.R. Stebbins, S. L. Kondrad, C. A. Erwin
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology
Index ID 5224871
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Patuxent Wildlife Research Center