Accounting for food availability reveals contaminant-induced breeding impairment, food-modulated contaminant effects, and endpoint-specificity of exposure indicators in free ranging avian populations


It remains unclear how sub-lethal effects of contaminants play out in relation to other stressors encountered by free-ranging populations. Effects may be masked or influenced by interactions with field stressors such as food availability. We predicted that (1) including food availability, and particularly its interaction with Hg, would reveal or enhance associations between Hg and breeding endpoints. We further predicted that (2) breeding impairment associated with Hg would be higher under food stress conditions. We monitored Hg and nest success of great egrets (Ardea alba) in eight breeding colonies in the Florida Everglades over 11 years. We characterized variation in local food availability among colonies and years using fish biomass and recession range –a proxy to fish vulnerability. We used two Hg exposure indicators (egg albumen Hg and nestling feather Hg) and six breeding endpoints (clutch-size, brood-size, fledged-size, hatching success, post-hatching success and fledglings per egg) to assess whether variation in food availability influenced associations between Hg and these endpoints. Accounting for interactions between Hg and food availability, we identified statistically significant associations in all 12 indicator-endpoint combinations, while only three were detectable without food. Further, 10 combinations showed interactions between Hg and components of food availability. Our results also indicated an endpoint-specific affinity, with albumen [Hg] explaining more variation in hatching success while nestling feather [Hg] explained more variation in post-hatching survival. Both Hg indicators accounted for relevant (6–10%) amounts of variation in fledglings produced per egg laid, an integrative endpoint. Increased Hg exposure resulted in overall reduced reproductive success when food availability was low, but our models predicted low or no effects of increasing Hg exposure when food availability was high. Our results indicate that Hg induced impairment is strongly driven by food availability, providing a framework that accommodates previously contradictory results in the literature.

Science of The Total Environment