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Assessing the effects of the Prestige oil spill on the European shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis): Trace elements and stable isotopes

Sanpera, Carola, Valladares, Sonia, Moreno, Rocío, Ruiz, Xavier, Jover, Lluis
Science of the total environment 2008 v.407 no.1 pp. 242-249
lead, gender, selenium, carbon, stable isotopes, oil spills, pollution, feathers, trophic relationships, temporal variation, animal nutrition, copper, indicator species, muscles, spatial variation, chromium, mortality, liver, mercury, zinc, nitrogen, seabirds, Spain
The Prestige oil spill resulted in the mortality of several seabird species on the Atlantic NW coast of Spain. Shag casualties were particularly relevant, since populations are resident in the area the whole year round and because of several features which make them highly vulnerable to environmental hazards. Ecological catastrophes give us the opportunity of collecting samples which, otherwise, would be difficult to obtain. We examine the potential of shag corpses as bioindicators of inorganic pollution and the possible factors of variability, such as biological traits (sex, age) or nutrition status. We determined trace elements (Hg, Se, Cr, Pb, Zn and Cu) and isotopic signatures (¹⁵N, ¹³C) in soft tissues (muscle, liver) and in primary feathers formed at different times (before and after the Prestige) in individuals of known sex and age, collected at the time of the Prestige disaster. These were compared with data from another group of shags trapped accidentally in fishing gear in 2005. Our results did not seem to be affected by sex or age on any of the analysed variables. The higher nitrogen isotopic signatures in the soft tissues of the Prestige shags may be related to the nutrition stress caused by a poorer body condition, which is also reflected in increasing levels of some metals in the liver. This isotopic enrichment was also observed in newly forming feathers when compared to the old ones. On the other hand, the lower δ ¹⁵N and Hg values in shag feathers from 2005 point to a shift in feeding resources to prey of lower trophic levels. We found that feather features (being an inert tissue and having a conservative composition), if combined with careful dating and chemical analysis, offer a very useful tool to evaluate temporal and spatial changes in seabird ecology in relation to pollution events.