High levels of maternally transferred mercury disrupt magnetic responses of snapping turtle hatchlings (Chelydra serpentina).
The Earth's magnetic field is involved in spatial behaviours ranging from long-distance migration to nongoal directed behaviours, such as spontaneous magnetic alignment (SMA). Mercury is a harmful pollutant most often generated from anthropogenic sources that can bio-accumulate in animal tissue over a lifetime.We compared SMA of hatchling snapping turtles from mothers captured at reference (i.e., low mercury) and mercury contaminated sites. Reference turtles showed radio frequency-dependent SMA along the north-south axis, consistent with previous studies of SMA, while turtles with high levels of maternally inherited mercury failed to show consistent magnetic alignment. In contrast, there was no difference between reference and mercury exposed turtles on standard performance measures. The magnetic field plays an important role in animal orientation behaviour and may also help to integrate spatial information from a variety of sensory modalities. As a consequence, mercury may compromise the performance of turtles in a wide variety of spatial tasks. Future research is needed to determine the threshold for mercury effects on snapping turtles, whether mercury exposure compromises spatial behaviour of adult turtles, and whether mercury has a direct effect on the magnetoreception mechanism(s) that mediate SMA or a more general effect on the nervous system.