Contemporary mercury interest relates to atmospheric deposition, contaminated fish stocks and exposed fish-eating wildlife. The focus is on methylmercury (MeHg) even though most contamination is of inorganic (IoHg) origin. However, IoHg is readily methylated in aquatic systems to become more hazardous to vertebrates. In response to a classic episode of historical (1859-1890) IoHg contamination, we studied fish-eating birds nesting along the lower Carson River, Nevada. Adult double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus), snowy egrets (Egretta thula) and black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) contained very high concentrations of total mercury (THg) in their livers (geo. means 134.8 g/g wet weight [ww], 43.7, and 13.5, respectively) and kidneys (69.4, 11.1, and 6.1, respectively). Apparently tolerance of these concentrations was possible due to post-absorption demethylation and sequestration of resultant IoHg. Demethylation and sequestration processes also appeared to have reduced the amount of MeHg redistributed to eggs. However, the relatively short time spent by adults in the contaminated area before egg laying was also a factor in lower than expected concentrations of mercury in eggs. Most eggs (100% MeHg) had concentrations below 0.80 g/g ww, the putative threshold concentration where reproductive problems may be expected; there was no conclusive evidence of depressed hatchability. After hatching, the young birds were fed diets by their parents averaging 0.36 to 1.18 gMeHg/g ww through fledging. During this four to six week period, accumulated mercury concentrations in the organs of the fledglings were much lower than found in adults, but evidence was detected of toxicity to their immune (spleen, thymus, bursa), detoxicating (liver, kidneys) and nervous systems. Several indications of oxidative stress were also noted in the fledglings and were most apparent in young cormorants containing highest concentrations of mercury. This stress was evidenced by increased thiobarbituric acid-reactive substances, low activities of enzymes related to glutathione metabolism and low levels of reduced thiols, plus an increase in the ratio of oxidized to reduced glutathione. At lower concentrations of mercury, as was found in young egrets, we observed elevated activities of protective hepatic enzymes, which could help reduce oxidative stress. Immune deficiencies and neurological impairment of fledglings may affect survivability when confronted with the stresses of learning to forage and the ability to complete their first migration.
Additional publication details
Nineteenth century mercury hazard to wading birds and cormorants of the Carson River, Nevada