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Mercury Devastates Arctic Fox Populations

Mercury Devastates Arctic Fox Populations

Arctic foxes are certifiably cute, and certifiably in trouble. Several populations are vulnerable to incursions by other fox species like red foxes, spreading into Finland, and others are experiencing mysterious population declines. One group of researchers set out to determine why Arctic fox populations in some locations were dropping so precipitously, thinking they would find a pathogen or similar explanation, but instead what they discovered is chilling: like many animals worldwide, Arctic foxes are suffering from mercury poisoning.

Mercury continues to be used in a wide variety of consumer products and manufacturing processes despite a global commitment to reducing mercury levels in the environment, in recognition of the fact that this metal can cause serious health problems. For animals like Arctic foxes, the problem is especially acute, because they are subject to a process called biomagnification. Mercury pollution enters the world’s oceans (the world’s mercury content has doubled over the last 100 years), where it accumulates in microorganisms eaten by fish, who in turn develop a mercury buildup.

When those fish are eaten by seabirds and seals, they carry a toxic load with them. Arctic foxes bear the brunt of the load when they feed on seabirds and seal remains, consuming mercury along with their meals. The metal causes problems like infertility, death in young foxes, neurological issues and poor coat condition, which can be a big problem for animals living in the frozen regions of the world. Over time, mercury poisoning has taken its toll on Arctic fox populations living in the coastal regions of the world.

The researchers took a look at four populations of foxes. One was on Mednyi Island in the Bering Sea, where declines in fox populations have been noted with alarm. Other samples came from coastal and inland Icelandic foxes, and the researchers also took a look at museum specimens from the Commander Islands. They examined the hair and skin, when possible, of the foxes, because hair creates an excellent record of exposure to toxins, as it will hold on to them for an extended period of time, providing a kind of Rolodex of which toxins the animals have been exposed to during their lives.

In the study, the researchers found that foxes are being exposed to more mercury than before, over an extended period of time, which is a recipe for problems in both the current fox population and future generations. Pollution is an acute problem for coastal foxes, because their primary food sources are laden with the metal. Conversely, while the inland Icelandic foxes did carry some traces of mercury, it wasn’t as extreme as it was with coastal animals.

One thing they didn’t find in the course of their research was evidence of a pathogen that might explain the problem. All evidence points toward mercury as the culprit for drops in fox populations and the ill health observed in some Arc fox communities.

This has important implications for conservation strategies. Tragically for coastal foxes, the most efficient way to direct conservation efforts is to focus on inland fox populations. By doing so, scientists can help build a stable and diverse gene pool, protect the species and reduce the risk that they’ll vanish entirely. Coastal populations, meanwhile, would be very difficult to help because their diet is so dependent on heavy sources of mercury that it would be ecologically challenging to address their issues.

More broadly, this study also illustrates the dangers of biomagnification and the critical need to address rising levels of mercury and other pollutants in the natural environment. Arctic foxes aren’t the only ones suffering as a result of mercury poisoning, and the problem’s only going to get worse over time, especially with all indicators suggesting that there’s no projected drop in levels of this toxic metal, even with positive steps toward interventions like an international treaty to reduce mercury levels.

Related articles:

Success! EPA Announces New Protection from Mercury Pollution

Mercury Pollution Spells Trouble for Loons

A Front Row Seat for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards

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Photo credit: Eric Kilby

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112 comments

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7:15AM PDT on Jun 21, 2013

thanks for sharing

12:25PM PDT on Jun 15, 2013

How tragic! :(

7:57AM PDT on Jun 4, 2013

so sad!

12:48AM PDT on May 29, 2013

Humans are at it again!! Sadly, we'll never learn. We'll wipe ourselves out.

10:45PM PDT on May 19, 2013

thanks

7:19AM PDT on May 18, 2013

Thank you S. E. Smith, for Sharing this!

3:22PM PDT on May 16, 2013

Yet another heartbreaking story about the peril of nature's balance and how innocents suffer.

7:11AM PDT on May 16, 2013

People are actually very thoughtless and may I add selfish where the protection and conservation of the environment is concerned. Governments are to be held responsible for the devastation of the environment as they try to promote factories and industries without any safeguards to prevent such things as mercury poisoning. The America manufacturing industry is particularly guilty of committing crimes such as flooding the surrounding streams and rivers with toxic matter including this lethal mercury since American environment protection laws are lax and more in favor of the industry than the environment. I hope these laws are amended and made more stringent if we want to save our environment and wildlife.

7:41PM PDT on May 15, 2013

Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted as saying, “Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

3:10PM PDT on May 15, 2013

humans are such parasites! we are destroying our own home and everything in it!

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