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Trophic structure and mercury distribution in a Gulf of St. Lawrence (Canada) food web using stable isotope analysis

Lavoie, Raphael A., Hebert, Craig E., Rail, Jean-François, Braune, Birgit M., Yumvihoze, Emmanuel, Hill, Laura G., Lean, David R.S.
Science of the total environment 2010 v.408 no.22 pp. 5529-5539
bioaccumulation, body weight, carbon, energy, food chain, food webs, lipid content, mercury, methylmercury compounds, mixing, models, nitrogen, organic matter, predators, primary productivity, seabirds, stable isotopes, Canada, Gulf of Saint Lawrence
Even at low concentrations in the environment, mercury has the potential to biomagnify in food chains and reaches levels of concern in apex predators. The aim of this study was to relate the transfer of total mercury (THg) and methylmercury (MeHg) in a Gulf of St. Lawrence food web to the trophic structure, from primary consumers to seabirds, using stable nitrogen (δ ¹⁵N) and carbon (δ ¹³C) isotope analysis and physical environmental parameters. The energy reaching upper trophic level species was principally derived from pelagic primary production, with particulate organic matter (POM) at the base of the food chain. We developed a biomagnification factor (BMF) taking into account the various prey items consumed by a given predator using stable isotope mixing models. This BMF provides a more realistic estimation than when using a single prey. Lipid content, body weight, trophic level and benthic connection explained 77.4 and 80.7% of the variation in THg and MeHg concentrations, respectively in this food web. When other values were held constant, relationships with lipid and benthic connection were negative whereas relationships with trophic level and body weight were positive. Total Hg and MeHg biomagnified in this food web with biomagnification power values (slope of the relationship with δ ¹⁵N) of 0.170 and 0.235, respectively on wet weight and 0.134 and 0.201, respectively on dry weight. Values of biomagnification power were greater for pelagic and benthopelagic species compared to benthic species whereas the opposite trend was observed for levels at the base of the food chain. This suggests that Hg would be readily bioavailable to organisms at the base of the benthic food chain, but trophic transfer would be more efficient in each trophic level of pelagic and benthopelagic food chains.