Foraging in marine habitats increases mercury concentrations in a generalist seabird

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Methylmercury concentrations vary widely across geographic space and among habitat types, with marine and aquatic-feeding organisms typically exhibiting higher mercury concentrations than terrestrial-feeding organisms. However, there are few model organisms to directly compare mercury concentrations as a result of foraging in marine, estuarine, or terrestrial food webs. The ecological impacts of differential foraging may be especially important for generalist species that exhibit high plasticity in foraging habitats, locations, or diet. Here, we investigate whether foraging habitat, sex, or fidelity to a foraging area impact blood mercury concentrations in western gulls (Larus occidentalis) from three colonies on the US west coast. Cluster analyses showed that nearly 70% of western gulls foraged primarily in ocean or coastal habitats, whereas the remaining gulls foraged in terrestrial and freshwater habitats. Gulls that foraged in ocean or coastal habitats for half or more of their foraging locations had 55% higher mercury concentrations than gulls that forage in freshwater and terrestrial habitats. Ocean-foraging gulls also had lower fidelity to a specific foraging area than freshwater and terrestrial-foraging gulls, but fidelity and sex were unrelated to gull blood mercury concentrations in all models. These findings support existing research that has described elevated mercury levels in species using aquatic habitats. Our analyses also demonstrate that gulls can be used to detect differences in contaminant exposure over broad geographic scales and across coarse habitat types, a factor that may influence gull health and persistence of other populations that forage across the land-sea gradient.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Foraging in marine habitats increases mercury concentrations in a generalist seabird
Series title Chemosphere
DOI 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2021.130470
Volume 279
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description 130470, 9 p.
Country United States
State California, Oregon
Other Geospatial Cleft-in-Rock, Hunters Island, Farallon Island
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