Trophic magnification factors: Considerations of ecology, ecosystems, and study design



Recent reviews by researchers from academia, industry, and government have revealed that the criteria used by the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants under the United Nations Environment Programme are not always able to identify the actual bioaccumulative capacity of some substances, by use of chemical properties such as the octanol–water partitioning coefficient. Trophic magnification factors (TMFs) were suggested as a more reliable tool for bioaccumulation assessment of chemicals that have been in commerce long enough to be quantitatively measured in environmental samples. TMFs are increasingly used to quantify biomagnification and represent the average diet-to-consumer transfer of a chemical through food webs. They differ from biomagnification factors, which apply to individual species and can be highly variable between predator–prey combinations. The TMF is calculated from the slope of a regression between the chemical concentration and trophic level of organisms in the food web. The trophic level can be determined from stable N isotope ratios (δ15N). In this article, we give the background for the development of TMFs, identify and discuss impacts of ecosystem and ecological variables on their values, and discuss challenges and uncertainties associated with contaminant measurements and the use of δ15N for trophic level estimations. Recommendations are provided for experimental design, data treatment, and statistical analyses, including advice for users on reporting and interpreting TMF data. Interspecies intrinsic ecological and organismal properties such as thermoregulation, reproductive status, migration, and age, particularly among species at higher trophic levels with high contaminant concentrations, can influence the TMF (i.e., regression slope). Following recommendations herein for study design, empirical TMFs are likely to be useful for understanding the food web biomagnification potential of chemicals, where the target is to definitively identify if chemicals biomagnify (i.e., TMF > or < 1). TMFs may be less useful in species- and site-specific risk assessments, where the goal is to predict absolute contaminant concentrations in organisms in relation to threshold levels. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2012;8:64–84. © 2011 SETAC