Exposure of great egret (Ardea albus) nestlings to mercury through diet in the everglades ecosystem


We estimated exposure of great egret (Ardea albus) nestlings to mercury in food in the Florida Everglades, USA, by collecting regurgitated food samples during the 1993 to 1996 breeding seasons and during 1995 measured concentrations of mercury in individual prey items from those samples. Great egret nestlings had a diet composed predominantly of fish (textgreater95% of biomass), though the species composition of fish in the diet fluctuated considerably among years. Great egrets concentrated on the larger fish available in the marsh, especially members of the Centrarchidae. The importance of all nonnative fish fluctuated from 0 to 32% of the diet by biomass and was dominated by pike killifish (Belonesox belizanus) and cichlids (Cichlidae). Total mercury concentrations in prey fish ranged from 0.04 to 1.40 mg/kg wet weight, and we found a significant relationship between mass of individual fish and mercury concentration. We estimated the concentration of total mercury in the diet as a whole by weighting the mercury concentration in a given fish species by the proportion of that species in the diet. We estimate that total mercury concentrations in the diets ranged among years from 0.37 to 0.47 mg/kg fish (4-year mean = 0.41 mg/kg). We estimated total mercury exposure in great egret nestlings by combining these mercury concentrations with measurements of food intake rate, as measured over the course of the nestling period in both lab and field situations. We estimate that, at the 0.41 mg/kg level, nestlings would ingest 4.32 mg total mercury during an 80-day nestling period. Captive feeding studies reported elsewhere suggest that this level of exposure in the wild could be associated with reduced fledging mass, increased lethargy, decreased appetite, and, possibly, poor health and juvenile survival.

Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry