Acidic Depositions: Effects on Wildlife and Habitats

Wildlife Society Technical Review 93-1.

OCLC 32707020


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The phenomenon of 'acid rain' is not new; it was recognized in the mid-1800s in industrialized Europe. In the 1960s a synthesis of information about acidification began in Europe, along with predictions of ecological effects. In the U.S. studies of acidification began in the 1920s. By the late 1970s research efforts in the U.S. and Canada were better coordinated and in 1980 a 10-year research program was undertaken through the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Plan (NAPAP) to determine the causes and consequences of acidic depositions. Much of the bedrock in the northeastern U.S. and Canada contains total alkalinity of <200 ?eq 1-1, thus, it lacks acid-neutralizing capacity. In the U.S. about 5% of the land area and in Canada about 43 % of the land area is sensitive to acidic depositions. Further, these areas receive >20 kg/ha/yr of wet sulphate depositions and are vulnerable to acidifying processes. Acidic depositions contribute directly to acidifying processes of soil and soil water. Soils must have sufficient acid-neutralizing capacity or acidity of soil will increase. Natural soil-forming processes that lead to acidification can be accelerated by acidic depositions. Long-term effects of acidification are predicted, which will reduce soil productivity mainly through reduced availability of nutrients and mobilization of toxic metals. Severe effects may lead to major alteration of soil chemistry, soil biota, and even loss of vegetation. Several species of earthworms and several other taxa of soil-inhabiting invertebrates, which are important food of many vertebrate wildlife species, are affected by low pH in soil. Loss of canopy in declining sugar maples results in loss of insects fed on by certain neotropical migrant bird species. No definitive studies categorically link atmospheric acidic depositions with direct or indirect effects on wild mammals. Researchers have concentrated on vegetative and aquatic effects. Circumstantial evidence suggests that effects are probable for certain species of aquatic-dependent mammals (water shrew, mink, and otter) and that these species are at risk from the loss of foods or contamination of these foods by metals, especially methylmercury. Continued acidification of terrestrial habitats, to the extent that earthworm populations are broadly reduced, might expose some fossorial mammalian species to risk because of decline in their major prey species. Acidic deposition affects primarily aquatic habitats of avian species by disrupting food webs (ecological effects) and increasing amounts of available heavy metals (mercury, aluminum, cadmium) in prey of avian species (toxicological effects). The ecological effects of acidifying wetlands are to reduce acid-intolerant prey (invertebrates) and to change prey quality from high-calcium bearing prey to low-calcium bearing prey. The toxicological effects are to increase contamination by heavy metals, especially methylated mercury, in foods of breeding waterbirds. The combination of these 2 types of effects results in potentially lower survival of adults and reduced production, growth, or survival of young of many bird species. Effects of acidification on herpteofauna and their habitats are mainly reproductive failure of susceptible species and reduced or metal-contaminated foods for both amphibians and reptiles.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Federal Government Series
Acidic Depositions: Effects on Wildlife and Habitats
Series title:
Wildlife Society Technical Review
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Publisher location:
Bethesda, MD
Contributing office(s):
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
iii, 42