Risk, mercury levels, and birds: Relating adverse laboratory effects to field biomonitoring

Joanna Burger, Michael Gochfeld

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

206 Scopus citations


There is an abundance of field data on levels of mercury in a variety of organisms and there are a number of studies that demonstrate the adverse effects of mercury on laboratory animals, but few studies examine the relationship between the two. Thus it is often difficult to determine the ecological relevance of mercury concentrations found in nature, or to predict the ecosystem consequences of current levels. In this paper we review the levels in tissues that are associated with adverse effects in birds from laboratory studies and compare these with levels found in wild bird populations in the New York Bight to provide a basis for interpreting values in avian populations. We use feathers from fledgling birds which would have been fed on locally obtained food to eliminate the problem of where toxic burdens were acquired by more mobile adult birds. Laboratory studies indicate that in some species mercury levels of 1.5 ppm in eggs and/or 5 to 40 ppm in the feathers of birds are associated with adverse effects, including impaired reproduction. We report egg levels in birds that range as high as 3.8 ppm and feather levels that range as high as 10.3 ppm, although means are much lower. The levels in eggs of some wild birds in the New York Bight are within the range known to lower hatchability, embryo and chick survival, and chick weight, all variables that reduce reproductive success. Species with high egg levels include Forster's tern (Sterna forsteri) and black skimmer (Rynchops niger). Levels in feathers of some young wild birds from the New York Bight are within the range associated with reduced hatchability of eggs, behavioral abnormalities of adults, and infertility. Species with dangerously elevated mercury levels in feathers include great egret (Ardea [=Egretta] alba), snowy egret (Egretta thula), and black skimmers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-172
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 1997

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Biochemistry
  • Environmental Science(all)


  • Bioindicator
  • Biomonitoring
  • Birds
  • Ecological risk
  • Effects
  • Fate
  • Feathers
  • Mercury


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