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Making leaps in amphibian ecotoxicology: translating individual-level effects of contaminants to population viability
Willson, J. D.
Hopkins, W. A.
Bergeron, C. M.
Todd, B. D.
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Concern that environmental contaminants contribute to global amphibian population declines has prompted extensive experimental investigation, but individual-level experimental results have seldom been translated to population-level processes. We used our research on the effects of mercury (He) on American toads (Bufo americanus) as a model for bridging the gap between individual-level contaminant effects and amphibian population viability. We synthesized the results of previous field and laboratory studies examining effects of Hg throughout the life cycle of B. americanus and constructed a comprehensive demographic population model to evaluate the consequences of Hg exposure on population dynamics. Our model explicitly considered density-dependent larval survival, which is known to be an important driver of amphibian population dynamics, and incorporated two important factors that have seldom been considered in previous amphibian modeling studies: environmental stochasticity and sublethal effects. We demonstrated that decreases in embryonic survival and sublethal effects (c.a., reduced body size) that delay maturation have minor effects on population dynamics, whereas contaminant effects that reduce late-larval or post-metamorphic survival have important population-level consequences. We found that excessive Hg exposure through maternal transfer or larval diet, alone, had minor effects on B. americanus populations. Simultaneous maternal and dietary exposure resulted in reduced population size and a dramatic increase in extinction probability, but explicit prediction of population-level effects was dependent on the strength of larval density dependence. Our results suggest that environmental contaminants can influence amphibian population viability, but that highly integrative approaches are needed to translate individual-level effects to populations.