Dramatic fluctuations in liver mass and metal content of eared grebes (Podiceps nigricollis) during autumnal migration

Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology
By:  and 



Adult eared grebes exhibit threefold fluctuation in body mass and up to a fivefold variation in liver weight during the course of their annual breeding and migratory cycle. Concentrations of 20 metals or metalloids were quantified in the liver from eared grebes obtained at three phases of their annual cycle: newly arrived migrants (July-August-September), staging (October-November), and immediate post-migration (December-January). Values for twelve elements (Al, B, Cd, Cr, Cu, Fe, Hg, Mg, Mn, Ni, Se, and Zn) that were detected in more than one-half of the samples were low. Hepatic concentrations of elements known to be toxic to free-ranging birds (e.g., Cd, Hg, Pb, Se) were well below known effect thresholds. No differences in metal concentrations were observed between newly arrived migrants and staging birds despite the large increases in body and liver mass. However, in the immediate post-migration period after body and liver mass have rapidly declined, Al values decreased, whereas Se and Zn concentrations actually increased. Total liver burdens of elements tended to be greatest in staging grebes compared to other collection periods, and paralleled changes in body and liver mass.

The need for temporally- and physiologically-matched reference birds, and at least knowledge of circannual organ mass fluctuations, appears to be a requirement for ecotoxicological exposure assessments in species such as the eared grebe. Generation of additional avian toxicity data from controlled dosing studies during potentially vulnerable phases of their annual cycle (e.g., molt, post-migration) seems warranted. Although it is commonly accepted that hepatic metal concentrations are principally affected by contaminant exposure, we have shown differential alterations related to the stage of the annual cycle. Our findings may be of broad significance, as well as of immediate importance in resolving the cause of the die-off of approximately 150,000 eared grebes (perhaps 7% of the North American population) at the Salton Sea in 1991-1992.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Dramatic fluctuations in liver mass and metal content of eared grebes (Podiceps nigricollis) during autumnal migration
Series title Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology
DOI 10.1007/s001289900483
Volume 59
Issue 3
Year Published 1997
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Description 7 p.
First page 337
Last page 343