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Using ptilochronology to determine daily mercury deposition in feathers of nestling waterbirds



Feathers are commonly used biomarkers of mercury (Hg) contamination in waterbird species. Most studies that analyze waterbird feathers for Hg content report concentrations on a per-unit mass basis. While this is appropriate for intraspecific comparisons, we suggest a more effective method for studies comparing multiple species of similar size and with similar foraging habits. Ptilochronology is a technique for determining the rate of feather growth in individuals based on their nutritional condition. When paired with Hg analysis, feather growth rates can be used to calculate the average daily Hg deposition into a feather. In this study we used this technique in comparison with the commonly used metric of Hg per-unit feather mass in two waterbird species. Average daily Hg deposition into feathers was 26.7% more sensitive to differences in Hg between the two species, suggesting that this may be a more biologically meaningful metric to use in interspecific comparisons. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2011;30:2081–2083. © 2011 SETAC