Individual and Interactive Impacts of Mercury and Agriculture on Reproduction in a Freshwater Turtle, Chelydra serpentina
Thompson, Molly Marie
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In aquatic turtles, females select nest sites that have a high degree of solar exposure, and exploit recently tilled agricultural fields for nesting, presumably because of increased solar exposure and/or easier nest excavation, and the importance of incubation temperature on survival and offspring phenotype. These same disturbed sites are often contaminated by pollutants and turtles can incorporate high levels of pollutants into their eggs which negatively impact hatch success. For my M.S. research, I investigated turtle nest site selection in a system dominated by agricultural and industrial land use, the impact of crop growth on the thermal and hydric dynamics of turtle nests, and I used paired field and laboratory experiments to examine the individual and interactive impacts of agricultural land use and Hg contamination on hatch success and offspring phenotype in Chelydra serpentina. Of the 150 turtle nests found during this research, 84% were located in human-disturbed soils. Nest site characteristics were similar among nests found in Hg contaminated and reference areas. Agriculture and control nests did not differ in temperature at the time of nesting, but temperatures diverged as crops grew, with temperatures in nests in agricultural fields averaging 2.5 °C lower than control nests over the course of incubation. Similarly, despite no initial difference, nest moisture levels diverged throughout incubation and moisture averaged 107 kPa lower in agricultural than control soils throughout incubation. In my field and laboratory experiments, I found that in comparison to turtles from control incubation conditions (i.e., warmer), turtles incubated under agricultural thermal regimens (i.e., colder) took longer to hatch, hatched at smaller structural body sizes, lost more mass after hatching, had lower post-hatching structural growth rates, and were more likely to be male. Additionally, thermal conditions associated with agricultural land use interacted with high levels of mercury to impact hatching success and offspring sex ratios. My thesis research provides one of the first documentations of negative interactive effects of mercury pollution and habitat quality on early vertebrate development and highlights the importance of examining the combined influence of multiple global changes on biological systems.
- Masters Theses