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Ecotoxicology. 2013 Jan;22(1):22-32. doi: 10.1007/s10646-012-0999-8. Epub 2012 Sep 26.

Nondestructive indices of mercury exposure in three species of turtles occupying different trophic niches downstream from a former chloralkali facility.

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Wildlife Ecotoxicology and Physiological Ecology, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Virginia Tech University, 106 Cheatham Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0321, USA.


Turtles are useful for studying bioaccumulative pollutants such as mercury (Hg) because they have long life spans and feed at trophic levels that result in high exposure to anthropogenic chemicals. We compared total Hg concentrations in blood and toenails of three species of turtles (Chelydra serpentina, Sternotherus odoratus, and Graptemys geographica) with different feeding ecologies from locations up- and downstream of a superfund site in Virginia, USA. Mercury concentrations in turtle tissues were low at the reference site (average ± 1SE: blood = 48 ± 6 ng g(-1); nail = 2,464 ± 339 ng g(-1) FW) but rose near the contamination source to concentrations among the highest ever reported in turtles [up to 1,800 ng g(-1) (blood) and 42,250 ng g(-1) (nail) FW]. Tissue concentrations remained elevated ~130 km downstream from the source compared to reference concentrations. Tissue Hg concentrations were higher for C. serpentina and S. odoratus than G. geographica, consistent with the feeding ecology and our stable isotope (δ(13)C and δ(15)N) analyses of these species. In addition, we suggest that toenails were a better indication of Hg exposure than blood, probably because this keratinized tissue represents integrated exposure over time. Our results demonstrate that downstream transport of Hg from point sources can persist over vast expanses of river thereby posing potential exposure risks to turtles, but relative exposure varies with trophic level. In addition, our study identifies turtle toenails as a simple, cost-efficient, and minimally invasive tissue for conservation-minded sampling of these long-lived vertebrates.

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