Scientists say new mercury rules could mean continued risk for loons

December 11, 2003

(Dec. 11, 2003) Researchers from the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other organizations conducting an ongoing study of common loons in the Adirondacks, say that the newly proposed regulations on mercury emissions could adversely affect these beloved birds, known for their haunting yodel-like calls.

Scientists representing the Adirondack Cooperative Loon Program (ACLP), a partnership of WCS, the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks (NHMA), New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, BioDiversity Research Institute (BRI), and the Audubon Society of New York, are concerned because data already shows that mercury pollution impacts loons in the Adirondacks and other areas, causing lower reproductive rates. One recent sample of 100 Adirondack loons by BioDiversity Research Institute (BRI) and the US Fish & Wildlife Service revealed that 17 percent of the birds had mercury levels high enough to potentially affect their reproductive success and behavior.

A new federal plan calls for easing regulations proposed by the Clinton Administration to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants - something that scientists say may lead to more bad news.

"We are very concerned that any increase in mercury emissions could spell further trouble for loons in the Adirondack Park and elsewhere in the Northeast," said WCS-NHMA scientist Dr. Nina Schoch, Coordinator for the Adirondack Cooperative Loon Program. "Loons are already suffering from mercury pollution here and in other locations. More mercury will mean greater impacts on northeastern loon populations and their habitats."

Mercury toxicity causes behavioral changes in loons, making them more lethargic, due to its neurotoxic effects. Adult birds incubate and feed their young less, while chicks feed less and ride on their parents' backs less, making them more susceptible to predation and chilling. Mercury levels in loons elevates as you go farther east in North America, due to prevailing winds from power plants in the Midwest, scientists believe.

"Models indicate that, partly due to mercury contamination, reproductive rates of loons may already be too low to maintain their populations in portions of Maine and eastern Canada," stated Dr. David Evers, BRI's Executive Director and collaborator with the Adirondack Cooperative Loon Program Earlier this year, with support from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), ACLP expanded its research to better understand how environmental mercury contamination moves up the food chain from lakes to top predators, such as loons. Results of this project will be posted on the ACLP & NYSERDA websites, www.adkscience.org/loons and www.nyserda.org, as the project progresses.
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Wildlife Conservation Society

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