Date of Award
Master of Science
North American scoter populations have declined by approximately 60% over the last 30-50 years. Prior studies of other sea duck species suggest that trace elements can have deleterious effects on overall body condition. For surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillatta) and white-winged scoters (Melanitta fusca), this study tested the following hypotheses: (1) Trace element accumulation differs among seasons, locations, and species; (2) Increased trace elements in tissues correlate with declines in body condition; (3) Surf scoters that shift their feeding to a higher trophic level in spring bioaccumulate higher levels of trace elements; and (4) Selenium and mercury co-accumulate in a 1:1 molar ratio. To test these hypotheses, cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg), and selenium (Se) in livers and kidneys were collected from adult male surf scoters and white-winged scoters in December 2005 and March 2006 from three locations in Puget Sound, Washington. Trace elements in surf scoters differed among locations, and seasons. Se and Cd in liver and kidney explained 21% of the variance in a matrix of body condition factors in surf scoters. In white-winged scoters, body condition differed between March and December, but trace elements in tissues did not, indicating that contaminants did not explain changes in condition. Thus, hypotheses 1 and 2 received partial support while hypothesis 3 did not. Finally, Se and Hg did not covary in either the kidney or liver of either species (hypothesis 4). Compared to other marine birds, scoters in this study contained low contaminant levels. Nonetheless, inorganic contaminants explained substantial variation in body condition of surf scoters, and potentially contribute to their population declines. These findings suggest that inorganic contaminants, particularly Cd, should be considered in assessing habitat quality for sea ducks.
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