Effect of pollution on the reproductive energetics of the Arctic tern in the Barents Sea (Arctic tern energetics and pollution)

We will study the reproductive energetics of arctic terns, which are exposed to pollutants that may affect breeding. We will measure the toxicology and hormone status of several birds breeding at Ny Ålesund, Svalbard while measuring both baseline energetics (basal metabolic rate or BMR) and daily energy budgets as field metabolic rate (FMR).

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Project type

  • field work


  • marine biology

Project Keywords

  • biosphere / ecological dynamics / ecotoxicology

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Due to a confluence of atmospheric transport, ocean currents, and a cold climate that reduces volatility and enhances persistence (Burkow and Kallenborn 2000), this community is threatened by heavy metals (e.g., mercury) and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that accumulate and biomagnify as they go up the food chain (Gabrielsen and Sydnes 2009). Among the POPs are poly¬chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated pesticides (e.g., chlordane), and more recently perfluoro¬alkylated substances (PFASs) (Blévin et al. 2017). There is concern that POPs may affect reproductive success in seabirds either by acting (1) directly on reproduction (i.e., egg or chick development), or (2) indirectly by altering the levels of hormones in breeding birds (e.g., corticosterones, thyroxin, and prolactin). POP-induced hormonal changes may affect a breeder’s energy balance by changing its demand for food (reflected in basal metabolic rate or BMR) or its ability to harvest food (reflected in field metabolic rate or FMR). Geir W. Gabrielsen participated in a study of glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus), a top carnivore, that demonstrated this. He and Hugh I. Ellis were part of a study on black-legged kittiwakes, a mid-trophic level bird where these relationships were also established. Arctic terns feed at a lower trophic level than the other birds. If they also show a connection between POPs and metabolic rates, it may be assumed that all seabirds are so affected. In this study, we will take blood from adult arctic terns captured at the nest from which we will be able to measure their toxicology and hormone status. A second capture once chicks are larger will provide a smaller blood sample to be used to determine FMR. Birds captured this second time will be brought to the lab for measurement of BMR. All birds will be captured in conjunction with the study being pursued by Maarten Loonen in order to minimize the birds affected. Birds held for BMR measurement will be released after about 4 hours. We are asking whether the level of POPs in the bodies of arctic terns is sufficient to affect their metabolic rates. We specifically will be looking for correlations among POPs, hormones, and both BMR and FMR. Specifically, we will measure: • The presence of POPs in arctic terns by blood samples • The levels of prolactin, thyroxin, and possibly corticosterones by blood samples • Field metabolic rates (FMRs) by the measurement of stable isotopes of water (doubly labeled with non-radioactive deuterium and oxygen-18) in blood samples • Basal metabolic rates (BMRs) by the measurement of oxygen consumption Our results, when combined with results from the previous studies on higher trophic level seabirds, will have important implications in understanding the effects of pollution on wildlife in the Barents Sea. It will also be useful in determining the resources needed by this species for future conservation concerns.

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