Geothermal features (e.g. geysers, fumaroles, vents, and springs) emit gaseous mercury, sulfur and heavy metals and therefore, are natural sources of these elements in the atmosphere. Field studies of heavy metals in lichens in Italy have detected elevated concentrations near geothermal power plants, and have determined that the origin of mercury is from soil degassing, not soil particles. We studied this phenomenon in a geothermal area without power plants to determine the natural levels of mercury and other elements. Two common and abundant species of epiphytic Lichens, Bryoria fremontii and Letharia vulpina, were collected at six localities in Yellowstone National Park, USA in 1998 and analyzed for 22 chemical elements. Thirteen elements differed significantly between species. Some elements were significantly higher in the southern part of the park, while others were higher in the north. Levels of most elements were comparable with those in other national parks and wilderness areas in the region, except Hg, which was unusually high. The most likely sources of this element are the geothermal features, which are known emitters of Hg. Multivariate analyses revealed strong positive associations of Hg with S, and negative associations with soil elements, providing strong evidence that the Hg in the lichens is the result of soil degassing of elemental Hg rather than particulate Hg directly from soils. Average Hg levels in the lichens were 140 p.p.b. in Bryoria and 110 p.p.b. in Letharia, but maxima were 291 and 243 p.p.b., respectively. In spite of this, both species were healthy and abundant throughout the park.
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Geothermal chemical elements in lichens of Yellowstone National Park