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Keywords:

  • Maternal transfer;
  • Snake;
  • Methylmercury;
  • South River

Abstract

Maternal transfer is an important exposure pathway for contaminants because it can directly influence offspring development. Few studies have examined maternal transfer of contaminants, such as mercury (Hg), in snakes, despite their abundance and high trophic position in many ecosystems where Hg is prevalent. The objectives of the present study were to determine if Hg is maternally transferred in northern watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon) and to evaluate the effects of maternal Hg on reproduction. The authors captured gravid female watersnakes (n = 31) along the South River in Waynesboro, Virginia, USA, where an extensive Hg-contamination gradient exists. The authors measured maternal tissue and litter Hg concentrations and, following birth, assessed (1) reproductive parameters (i.e., litter size and mass, neonate mass); (2) rates of infertility, death during development, stillbirths, malformations, and runts; and (3) the overall viability of offspring. Mercury concentrations in females were strongly and positively correlated with concentrations in litters, suggesting that N. sipedon maternally transfer Hg in proportion to their tissue residues. Maternal transfer resulted in high concentrations (up to 10.10 mg/kg dry wt total Hg) of Hg in offspring. The authors found little evidence of adverse effects of Hg on these measures of reproductive output and embryonic survival, suggesting that N. sipedon may be more tolerant of Hg than other vertebrate species. Given that this is the first study to examine the effects of maternally transferred contaminants in snakes and that the authors did not measure all reproductive endpoints, further research is needed to better understand factors that influence maternal transfer and associated sublethal effects on offspring. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2013;32:619–626. © 2012 SETAC