Journal article

Accumulate or eliminate? Seasonal mercury dynamics in albatrosses, the most contaminated family of birds

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Publication Details

Author list: Cherel Y, Barbraud C, Lahournat M, Jaeger A, Jaquemet S, Wanless RM, Phillips RA, Thompson DR, Bustamante P

Publisher: Elsevier

Publication year: 2018

Journal: Environmental Pollution

Volume number: 241

Start page: 124

End page: 135

Total number of pages: 12

ISSN: 0269-7491

eISSN: 1873-6424


Albatrosses (Diomedeidae) are iconic pelagic seabirds whose life-history traits (longevity, high trophic

position) put them at risk of high levels of exposure to methylmercury (MeHg), a powerful neurotoxin

that threatens humans and wildlife. Here, we report total Hg (THg) concentrations in body feathers from

516 individual albatrosses from 35 populations, including all 20 taxa breeding in the Southern Ocean. Our

key finding is that albatrosses constitute the family of birds with the highest levels of contamination by

Hg, with mean feather THg concentrations in different populations ranging from moderate (3.8 mg/g) to

exceptionally high (34.6 mg/g). Phylogeny had a significant effect on feather THg concentrations, with the

mean decreasing in the order Diomedea > Phoebetria > Thalassarche. Unexpectedly, moulting habitats

(reflected in feather d13C values) was the main driver of feather THg concentrations, indicating increasing

MeHg exposure with decreasing latitude, from Antarctic to subtropical waters. The role of moulting

habitat suggests that the majority of MeHg eliminated into feathers by albatrosses is from recent food

intake (income strategy). They thus differ from species that depurate MeHg into feathers that has been

accumulated in internal tissues between two successive moults (capital strategy). Since albatrosses are

amongst the most threatened families of birds, it is noteworthy that two albatrosses listed as Critical by

the World Conservation Union (IUCN) that moult and breed in temperate waters are the most Hgcontaminated

species (the Amsterdam and Tristan albatrosses). These data emphasize the urgent need

for robust assessment of the impact of Hg contamination on the biology of albatrosses and they document

the high MeHg level exposure of wildlife living in the most remote marine areas on Earth.


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