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Effects of Environmental Methylmercury on the Health of Wild Birds, Mammals, and Fish

Wild piscivorous fish, mammals, and birds may be at risk for elevated dietary methylmercury intake and toxicity. In controlled feeding studies, the consumption of diets that contained Hg (as methylmercury) at environmentally realistic concentrations resulted in a range of toxic effects in fish, birds, and mammals, including behavioral, neurochemical, hormonal, and reproductive changes. Limited field-based studies, especially with certain wild piscivorous bird species, e.g., the common loon, corroborated laboratory-based results, demonstrating significant relations between methylmercury exposure and various indicators of methylmercury toxicity, including reproductive impairment. Potential population effects in fish and wildlife resulting from dietary methylmercury exposure are expected to vary as a function of species life history, as well as regional differences in fish-Hg concentrations, which, in turn, are influenced by differences in Hg deposition and environmental methylation rates. However, population modeling suggests that reductions in Hg emissions could have substantial benefits for some common loon populations that are currently experiencing elevated methylmercury exposure. Predicted benefits would be mediated primarily through improved hatching success and development of hatchlings to maturity as Hg concentrations in prey fish decline. Other piscivorous species may also benefit from decreased Hg exposure but have not been as extensively studied as the common loon.

Published on 09-01-2009
Authors: Anton M. Scheuhammer, Michael W. Meyer, Mark B. Sandheinrich, and Michael W. Murray
Source: A Journal of the Human Environment Volume 36, Issue 1 (February 2007),