We studied lower food webs in streams of two mercury-sensitive regions to determine whether variations in consumer foraging strategy and resultant dietary carbon signatures accounted for observed within-site and among-site variations in consumer mercury concentration. We collected macroinvertebrates (primary consumers and predators) and selected forage fishes from three sites in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and three sites in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, for analysis of mercury (Hg) and stable isotopes of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N). Among primary consumers, scrapers and filterers had higher MeHg and more depleted δ13C than shredders from the same site. Variation in δ13C accounted for up to 34 % of within-site variation in MeHg among primary consumers, beyond that explained by δ15N, an indicator of trophic position. Consumer δ13C accounted for 10 % of the variation in Hg among predatory macroinvertebrates and forage fishes across these six sites, after accounting for environmental aqueous methylmercury (MeHg, 5 % of variation) and base-N adjusted consumer trophic position (Δδ15N, 22 % of variation). The δ13C spatial pattern within consumer taxa groups corresponded to differences in benthic habitat shading among sites. Consumers from relatively more-shaded sites had more enriched δ13C that was more similar to typical detrital δ13C, while those from the relatively more-open sites had more depleted δ13C. Although we could not clearly attribute these differences strictly to differences in assimilation of carbon from terrestrial or in-channel sources, greater potential for benthic primary production at more open sites might play a role. We found significant variation among consumers within and among sites in carbon source; this may be related to within-site differences in diet and foraging habitat, and to among-site differences in environmental conditions that influence primary production. These observations suggest that different foraging strategies and habitats influence MeHg bioaccumulation in streams, even at relatively small spatial scales. Such influence must be considered when selecting lower trophic level consumers as sentinels of MeHg bioaccumulation for comparison within and among sites.
Additional publication details
Influence of dietary carbon on mercury bioaccumulation in streams of the Adirondack Mountains of New York and the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, USA