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Sea, freshwater or saltpans? foraging ecology of terns to assess mercury inputs in a wetland landscape the Ebro Delta

, : Sea, freshwater or saltpans? foraging ecology of terns to assess mercury inputs in a wetland landscape the Ebro Delta. Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science 92.1 (March 20): 188-194

The Ebro catchment, the largest river basin in Spain, includes various heavily industrialized areas. Among these is the Flix site, where a chemical plant has been operating since the beginning of the 20th century. This extended operational period, together with the construction of a dam next to the factory around 1960, resulted in the accumulation of large amounts of heavily polluted sediments in the adjacent riverbed, many of which are contaminated by mercury. Pollutants from Flix are carried downstream by the Ebro River to its delta. In order to assess the transfer of mercury to the complex river estuary ecosystem, we studied the ecology of the tern community living there as these birds segregate into a range of habitats. For this purpose, first we used stable isotope analysis (SIA) (d34S, d13C, d15N) of eggs to determine the trophic ecology and habitat partitioning of several tern species (Common, Sandwich, Little, Gull-Billed and Whiskered Tern) breeding sympatrically, in order to link their foraging ecology with habitat types. Next we measured mercury concentrations in eggs to monitor the input of this metal into the diverse habitats. With the exception of the Little Tern, the other terns used a restricted habitat range in the Ebro Delta, as shown by C and S isotopes; the Gull-Billed and Whiskered Tern foraged in freshwater habitats, while the Common and Sandwich Tern used marine habitats. This restricted feeding behavior of the Gull-Billed and Common Tern contrasts with previous reports in other breeding sites. The Little Tern, which showed a wide range of isotopic values, was found to be an opportunistic forager but fed mainly in saltpans, a feeding habitat not reported previously for this species in this area. We found that mercury concentrations are related to foraging habitat and diet, and are unexpectedly higher in species feeding on demersal prey in marine habitats and also higher in birds feeding in saltpans than in those feeding in freshwater habitats. The mercury concentrations found in the Little and Common Tern eggs sampled in "Punta de la Banya" may be sufficiently high to endanger breeding success.


DOI: 10.1016/j.ecss.2010.12.024

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