Mercury on the rise in endangered Pacific seabirds

Apr 18, 2011

Using 120 years of feathers from natural history museums in the United States, Harvard University researchers have been able to track increases in the neurotoxin methylmercury in the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), an endangered seabird that forages extensively throughout the Pacific.

The study shows that the observed increase in methylmercury levels, most likely from human-generated emissions, can be observed and tracked over broad time periods in organisms that live in the Pacific Ocean.

The study was published in an online early edition on April 18, 2011, in the .

The study has important implications for both environmental and , say the authors. "The Pacific in particular warrants high conservation concern as more threatened seabird species inhabit this region than any other ocean," said lead author Anh-Thu Vo, who did her research while an undergraduate at Harvard and is currently a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. "Given both the high levels of methylmercury that we measured in our most recent samples and regional levels of emissions, bioaccumulation and toxicity may undermine reproductive effort in this species and other long-lived, endangered seabirds."

The researchers collected feathers from black-footed albatross specimens in the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology and the University of Washington Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and analyzed methylmercury in samples from 1880 to 2002. They found increasing levels of methylmercury that were generally consistent with historical global and recent regional increases in anthropogenic .

"Methylmercury has no benefit to animal life and we are starting to find high levels in endangered and sensitive species across marine, freshwater, and , indicating that mercury pollution and its subsequent chemical reactions in the environment may be important factors in species population declines," said study co-author Michael Bank, a research associate in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

"Using these historic bird feathers, in a way, represents the memory of the ocean, and our findings serve as a window to the historic and current conditions of the Pacific, a critical fishery for human populations," said Bank. Consumption of mercury-tainted fish from the Pacific Ocean is an important source of human exposure to methylmercury in the United States and may lead to adverse neurodevelopment effects in children, he added. "Much of the mercury pollution issue is really about how much society values wild animal populations, yet we are also faced with the tremendous public health challenge of communicating potential risks from mercury exposure to vulnerable adult and child human populations. Although most people have low or no risk from mercury exposure, for the people who are at risk, for example, from excessive fish consumption, the problem can be considerable," said Bank.

Explore further: Speckled beetle key to saving crops in Ethiopia

More information: Low back pain affects up to 80% of people of working age at some time in their lives, though most will recover. Low back pain can be recurring, and some people will continue to suffer with some degree of pain. In 85-90% of cases the pain cannot be attributed to a specific illness or injury.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mercury pollution threatens health worldwide, scientists say

Aug 11, 2006

Mercury pollution can threaten the health of people, fish and wildlife everywhere, from industrial sites to remote corners of the planet, but reducing mercury use and emissions would lessen those threats, according to a declaration ...

Why mercury is more dangerous in oceans

Jun 27, 2010

Even though freshwater concentrations of mercury are far greater than those found in seawater, it's the saltwater fish like tuna, mackerel and shark that end up posing a more serious health threat to humans ...

Worried about mercury? It's easy to choose safer fish

Jun 26, 2009

We've been told seafood is good for us because it's low in calories and fat, full of protein and packed with Omega-3s, which may protect against coronary heart disease and stroke, and are thought to help neurological development ...

Recommended for you

Speckled beetle key to saving crops in Ethiopia

9 hours ago

(Phys.org) —An invasive weed poses a serious and frightening threat to farming families in Ethiopia, but scientists from a Virginia Tech-led program have unleashed a new weapon in the fight against hunger: ...

New tool to assess noise impact on marine mammals

10 hours ago

A new desktop tool which will allow offshore renewable energy developers to assess the likely impacts of their projects on marine mammal populations has been developed by scientists at the University of St ...

Of bees, mites, and viruses

Aug 21, 2014

Honeybee colonies are dying at alarming rates worldwide. A variety of factors have been proposed to explain their decline, but the exact cause—and how bees can be saved—remains unclear. An article published on August ...

User comments : 0