Tropical seabirds sample broadscale patterns of marine contaminants

Publication Date

November 2019

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Publication Title

Science of The Total Environment





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Contaminants in the marine environment are widespread, but ship-based sampling routines are much narrower. We evaluated the utility of seabirds, highly-mobile marine predators, as broad samplers of contaminants throughout three tropical ocean regions. Our aim was to fill a knowledge gap in the distributions of, and processes that contribute to, tropical marine contaminants; and explore how species-specific foraging ecologies could inform or bias our understanding of contaminant distributions. Mercury and persistent organic pollutant (POPs) concentrations were measured in adults of five seabird species from four colonies in the central Pacific (Laysan and Tern Islands, Hawaii; Palmyra Atoll) and the eastern Caribbean (Barbuda). Blood-based total mercury (THg) and 89 POPs were measured in two seabird families: surface-foraging frigatebirds (Fregataspp.) and plunge-diving boobies (Sula spp.). Overall, largescale contaminant differences between colonies were more informative of contaminant distributions than inter-specific foraging ecology. Model selection results indicated that proximity to human populations was the best predictor of THg and POPs. Regional differences in contaminants were distinct: Barbudan Magnificent Frigatebirds had more compounds (n = 52/89 POP detected) and higher concentrations (geometric mean THg = 0.97 μg g−1; mean ΣPOP53 = 26.6 ng mL−1) than the remote colonies (34–42/89 POP detected; range of THg geometric means = 0.33–0.93 μg g−1; range of mean ΣPOP53:7.3–17.0 ng mL−1) and had the most recently-synthesized POPs. Moderate differences in foraging ecologies were somewhat informative of inter-specific differences in contaminant types and concentrations between nearshore and offshore foragers. Across species, contaminant concentrations were higher in frigatebirds (THg = 0.87 μg g−1; ΣPOP53 = 17.5 ng mL−1) compared to boobies (THg = 0.48 μg g−1; ΣPOP53 = 9.8). Ocean currents and contaminants' physiochemical properties provided additional insight into the scales of spatial and temporal contaminant exposure. Seabirds are excellent, broad samplers with which we can understand contaminant distributions in the marine environment. This is especially important for tropical remote regions that are under-sampled.


Foraging ecology, Fregatidae, Mercury, Persistent organic pollutants, Spatial ecotoxicology, Sulidae


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