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Mercury Concentration in Nestling Feathers Better Predicts Individual Reproductive Success than Egg or Nestling Blood in a Piscivorous Bird

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posted on 10.01.2019, 00:00 by Jabi Zabala, Ignacio A. Rodriguez-Jorquera, Sophia C. Orzechowski, Peter Frederick
Piscivorous birds are at high risk of mercury exposure in aquatic food webs, and their reproductive success is sensitive to methylmercury exposure. Although effects are convincingly shown in a handful of lab studies, sublethal effects at environmentally relevant concentrations in the field, where there is a range of other natural stressors, are not well delineated. Part of that uncertainty arises because mercury concentration (hereafter, [Hg]) in adult tissues used to assess Hg risk can be influenced by Hg values in wintering grounds or other nonrelated areas. Several studies have used nestling tissues under the assumption that they better represent local risk to breeding since nestlings consume locally derived food. However, the correlation between [Hg] in nestling tissues and local breeding success remains unassessed. We analyzed great egret (Ardea alba) breeding parameters collected over 3 years (2015–2017) in the Everglades (Florida, USA). The Everglades is a large contiguous wetland with geographically dispersed wading bird breeding sites exposed to variable and biologically relevant ranges of mercury concentrations. We examined mercury concentrations in albumen and nestling blood and feathers as predictors of 6 measures of reproductive success at individual nests. Albumen [Hg] did not correlate with reproductive end points, and correlations with blood [Hg] were weak. Feather [Hg] correlated negatively with all of the posthatching endpoints and explained 8.3% of the variance in the probability of a laid egg resulting in a fledged chick. However, most of the observed failures were hatching failures, which were not explained by albumen [Hg], and other nestling tissues could therefore not be evaluated. While our results support the use of nestling feathers as indicators of site-specific mercury exposure, we discuss both advantages and possible limitations of using nestling feathers as indicators of local mercury exposure.