Mercury contamination of fish is widespread in North America and has resulted in the establishment of fish consumption advisories to protect human health, However, the effects of mercury exposure to fish have seldom been investigated. We examined the effects of dietary mercury exposure at environmental levels in a common forage species, golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas). Fish were fed either an unaltered diet (12 ng/g wet wt methylmercury [MeHg] as Hg), a low-Hg diet (455 ng/g Hg), or a high-Hg diet (959 ng/g Hg). After 90 d mean fish whole-body total Hg concentrations were 41, 230, and 518 ng/g wet wt, respectively, which were within the range of concentrations found in this species in northern U.S. lakes. There were no mortalities or differences in growth rate among groups. Groups of fish from each treatment were exposed to a model avian predator and their behavioral response videotaped for analysis. Brain acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity was determined in fish after behavioral testing. Fish fed the high-Hg diet had significantly greater shoal vertical dispersal following predator exposure, took longer to return to pre-exposure activity level, and had greater shoal area after return to pre-exposure activity than did the other treatments, all of which would increase vulnerability of the fish to predation. There were no differences in brain AChE among treatments. We conclude that mercury exposure at levels currently occurring in northern United States lakes alters fish predator-avoidance behavior in a manner that may increase vulnerability to predation. This finding has significant implications for food chain transfer of Hg and Hg exposure of fish predators.
Additional publication details
Mercury effects on predator avoidance behavior of a forage fish, golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas)