Mercury (Hg) concentrations and stable isotope signatures in golden eagle eggs 2009-2013: a Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme (PBMS) report

Walker, L.A. ORCID:; Grant, H.K.; Hughes, D.; Lawlor, A.J.; Pereira, M.G. ORCID:; Potter, E.D.; Shore, R.F.. 2015 Mercury (Hg) concentrations and stable isotope signatures in golden eagle eggs 2009-2013: a Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme (PBMS) report. Lancaster, NERC/Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, 16pp. (CEH Project no. C05191)

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The Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme (PBMS; is the umbrella project that encompasses the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology’s National Capability activities for contaminant monitoring and surveillance work on avian predators. The PBMS aims to detect and quantify current and emerging chemical threats to the environment and in particular to vertebrate wildlife. Mercury (Hg) is a neurotoxin and there has been global concern over its impact on humans and wildlife. It has been predicted that global Hg emissions may rise in the future because of increased coal-fired power generation, but, in 2013, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) agreed The Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. An overarching aim of the convention is to control the anthropogenic releases of Hg to the environment. Therefore, long-term trends in environmental Hg concentrations are uncertain. One cost-effective means of assessing such trends is to monitor exposure in sentinel wildlife species. Golden eagles Aquila chrysaetos breed and forage in the Scottish uplands and could prove a sentinel for changing Hg deposition in upland terrestrial areas and associated wildlife exposure. We measured Hg residues in failed golden eagle eggs with the aim of providing baseline data on current levels of exposure. Specifically, we measured Hg concentrations in failed eggs laid between 2009 and 2013 in inland (> 3km from the coast) and coastal (<3 km from the coast) nests. We distinguished nests in this way because coastal nesting birds can feed on seabirds that can accumulate high levels of Hg themselves. Marine dietary Hg inputs could potentially obscure any changes in Hg accumulation associated with altered upland terrestrial Hg deposition, and so we hypothesized that only eggs from inland nests may be useful sentinels. In conjunction with Hg measurements, we examined stable isotope (SI) signatures (carbon (δ13C), nitrogen (δ15N) and sulphur (δ34S)) to determine if they differed between eggs from inland and coastal nests in a manner consistent with feeding primarily on terrestrial and marine prey, respectively. We also examined Hg concentrations and SI signatures of failed white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) eggs from nests on the west coast of Scotland. We used these measurements as a comparator against which to assess the extent to which SI and Hg measurements in eggs from coastal golden eagle nests might be indicative of feeding on marine prey and scavenge. We found that SI signatures (particularly δ34S isotopic ratios) and Hg concentrations were similar in golden eagle eggs from coastal nests and white tailed sea eagle eggs. SIs and Hg concentrations in eggs from inland nests were much more variable, and a third had SI signatures that were the same as those of eggs from coastal nests, suggesting that they too were laid by females feeding on a coastal diet. A cluster of seven eggs from inland nests had distinctive δ34S and δ15N values (below 11.0 ‰ and 5.7 ‰ respectively) and it was inferred that these were most likely laid by females feeding terrestrially. Hg concentrations were non-detectable in these seven eggs whereas the median concentration in golden eagle eggs associated with coastal feeding was 0.412 µg/g dry weight, similar to that (0.569 µg/g dry weight) in white tailed sea eagle eggs. Hg concentrations in all eggs were below those thought to be associated with embryotoxic effects. The lack of detectable Hg concentrations in GE eggs associated with upland terrestrial feeding is problematic if these eggs are to be used as sentinels of change in upland Hg concentrations. Re-analysis of a set of eggs using a more sensitive analytical technique may resolve this issue and should be explored, otherwise other sentinels may need to be investigated.

Item Type: Publication - Report
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: Shore
Funders/Sponsors: NERC/Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Natural England, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Defra, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage
Additional Information. Not used in RCUK Gateway to Research.: Freely available online via Official URL link.
Additional Keywords: mercury, stable isotopes, golden eagle, white-tailed sea eagle, birds of prey, monitoring, United Kingdom (UK), annual report
NORA Subject Terms: Ecology and Environment
Related URLs:
Date made live: 01 Apr 2015 11:51 +0 (UTC)

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