Food web analysis reveals effects of pH on mercury bioaccumulation at multiple trophic levels in streams
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Biomagnification processes and the factors that govern them, including those for mercury (Hg), are poorly understood in streams. Total and methyl Hg concentrations and relative trophic position (using δ(15)N) were analyzed in biofilm and invertebrates from 21 streams in New Brunswick, Canada to assess food web biomagnification leading to the common minnow blacknose dace (Rhinichthys atratulus), a species known to have Hg concentrations that are higher in low pH waters. Biomagnification slopes within stream food webs measured using Hg vs. δ(15)N or corresponding trophic levels (TL) differed depending on the chemical species analyzed, with total Hg exhibiting increases of 1.3-2.5 per TL (mean slope of total Hg vs. δ(15)N=0.14±0.06 S.D., range=0.06-0.20) and methyl Hg showing a more pronounced increase of 2.8 to 6.0 per TL (mean slope of methyl Hg vs. δ(15)N=0.30±0.08 S.D., range=0.22-0.39). While Hg biomagnification slopes through the entire food web (Trophic Magnification Factors, TMFs) were not influenced by water chemistry (pH), dietary concentrations of methyl Hg strongly influenced biomagnification factors (BMFs) for consumer-diet pairs within the food web at lower trophic levels, and BMFs between dace and predatory invertebrates were significantly higher in low pH waters. These analyses, coupled with observations of higher Hg in primary producers in streams with low pH, suggest that pH influences both baseline concentrations and biomagnification of Hg in these systems. Because higher Hg concentrations in the diets of primary consumers and predatory insects in lower pH waters led to lower BMFs, these feeding groups showed insignificant relationships between Hg and pH; thus, altered BMFs associated with dietary concentrations can dampen the effects of environmental conditions on Hg concentrations.
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