Terrestrial Scavenging of Marine Mammals: Cross-Ecosystem Contaminant Transfer and Potential Risks to Endangered California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus)


Carolyn M Kurle, Victoria J Bakker, Holly Copeland, Joe Burnett, Jennie Jones Scherbinski, Joseph Brandt, Myra E Finkelstein


Environmental Science and Technology


The critically endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) has relied intermittently on dead-stranded marine mammals since the Pleistocene, and this food source is considered important for their current recovery. However, contemporary marine mammals contain persistent organic pollutants that could threaten condor health. We used stable carbon and nitrogen isotope, contaminant, and behavioral data in coastal versus noncoastal condors to quantify contaminant transfer from marine mammals and created simulation models to predict the risk of reproductive impairment for condors from exposure to DDE (p,p'-DDE), a major metabolite of the chlorinated pesticide DDT. Coastal condors had higher whole blood isotope values and mean concentrations of contaminants associated with marine mammals, including mercury (whole blood), sum chlorinated pesticides (comprised of similar to 95% DDE) (plasma), sum polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (plasma), and sum polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) (plasma), 12-100-fold greater than those of noncoastal condors. The mean plasma DDE concentration for coastal condors was 500 +/- 670 (standard deviation) (n = 22) versus 24 +/- 24 (standard deviation) (n = 8) ng/g of wet weight for noncoastal condors, and simulations predicted similar to 40% of breeding-age coastal condors have DDE levels associated with eggshell thinning in other avian species. Our analyses demonstrate potentially harmful levels of marine contaminant transfer to California condors, which could hinder the recovery of this terrestrial species.



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