Evaluation, assessment, and determination of risk to high trophic level piscivores in the Mid-Atlantic: A spatial, biological, and comparative case study of mercury in Virginia bald eagle populations

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Virginia Tech

This research is focused on explaining the concentrations of mercury found in juvenile bald eagles (Halieattus leucocephallus) as a function of the physical and anthropogenic landscape. Due to it's location in the food chain this species is susceptible to a wide range of contaminants (xenobiotics), particularly those that bioaccumulate and biomagnify as they move through the food chain. Previous research has indicated that areas in coastal environments are less susceptible to methylation than those in freshwater environments. Sampling efforts for this research were conducted in such a manner as to obtain an equivalent number of samples from the coastal plain (expected to be low mercury) and the inland regions (expected to be statistically significantly higher). In all cases, results indicated that both feather and blood mercury concentrations were higher in the inland population (Blood: Prob > t = 0.0003, Feather: Prob > t = 0.0002). Utilizing classification and regression tree models (CART), we were able to relate metrics such as the percent of deciduous forest, percent of mixed forest, percent of pasture, and percent of wetland to measured blood mercury concentrations. We also found that the best models were produced using the USGS HUC 12 watersheds (the smallest watershed produced by the USGS). Moreover, we found that metrics describing the amount and type of fragmentation within the watersheds exhibited a significant influence on measured blood mercury concentrations. Contrary to previous research, we found wetlands to be negatively associated with higher blood mercury, whereas the abundance of core forest and a larger patch density (PD) in the deciduous and mixed land cover classes was positively associated with higher blood mercury concentrations. We also found that a higher percentage of pasture was associated with higher blood mercury.

Mercury, Geographic Information Systems, Landscape Fragmentation, Bald Eagle