Evidence from two shale regions that a riparian songbird accumulates metals associated with hydraulic fracturing


  • Corresponding Editor: B. Maslo.


The risk of contamination of surface waters from hydraulic fracturing activities (i.e., fracking) to extract gas from underground shale formations has been viewed primarily in the context of localized point-source events such as spills with no evidence of contaminants entering food chains. We showed that in watersheds where hydraulic fracturing occurs, an obligate riparian songbird and top predator in headwater systems, the Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla), accumulated metals associated with the fracking process. In both the Marcellus and Fayetteville shale regions, barium and strontium were found at significantly higher levels in feathers of birds in sites with fracking activity than at sites without fracking. The question of what pathway these metals followed from the shale layers to enter the food chain was not resolved by this study, but our data suggested a recent origin for these metals in the riparian systems we studied because levels of barium and strontium in feather samples from reference sites in the Marcellus Region without fracking activity did not differ from historical samples of waterthrush feathers gathered prior to any fracking in the region. Our finding of similarly elevated levels of metals associated with fracking in two geographically distant shale formations suggests hydraulic fracturing may be contaminating surface waters and underscores the need for additional monitoring and study to further assess ecological and human health risks posed by the increasingly widespread development of unconventional sources of natural gas around the world.