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Arctic Food Webs Affect Mercury in Polar Bears 12/8/09
12/18/2009 | Marilyn Sigman, Alaska SeaGrant/MAP
Tags: Climate Change, Arctic Ocean

University of Michigan News Service 12/8/09

With growing concerns about the effects of global warming on polar bears, it's increasingly important to understand how other environmental threats, such as mercury pollution, are affecting these magnificent Arctic animals. New research led by biogeochemists Travis Horton of the University of Canterbury and Joel Blum of the University of Michigan lays the groundwork for assessing current and future effects of mercury deposition and climate change on polar bears. The study appears in the December issue of the journal Polar Research.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but some 150 tons of it enter the environment each year from human-generated sources such as coal-burning power plants, incinerators and chlorine-producing plants. Deposited onto land or into water, mercury is picked up by microorganisms, which convert some of it to methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish and the animals that eat them. As bigger animals eat smaller ones, the methylmercury is concentrated—a process known as bioaccumulation. Sitting at the top of the food chain, polar bears amass high concentrations of the contaminant.

By looking at chemical signatures in hair samples from museum studies, the study showed that polar bears that get most of their nutrition from phytoplankton-based food webs have greater mercury concentrations than those that participate primarily in ice algae-based webs.

"If you want to understand the potential effects of changing ecosystems on polar bears, you need to be aware of the existence of these two food webs, which may possibly be affected by sea ice," Blum said. "This work provides background information that will be important in our in-depth understanding of mercury bioaccumulation in polar bears."


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