Effects of methylmercury exposure on the immune function of juvenile common loons (Gavia immer)



We conducted a dose-response laboratory study to quantify the level of exposure to dietary Hg, delivered as methyl-mercury chloride (CH3HgCl), that is associated with suppressed immune function in captive-reared common loon (Gavia immer) chicks. We used the phytohemagglutinin (PHA) skin test to assess T-lymphocyte function and the sheep red blood cell (SRBC) hemagglutination test to measure antibody-mediated immunity. The PHA stimulation index among chicks receiving dietary Hg treatment did not differ significantly from those of chicks on the control diet (p = 0.15). Total antibody (immunoglobulin [Ig] M [primary antibody] + IgG [secondary response]) production to the SRBC antigen in chicks treated with dietary methylmercury (MeHg), however, was suppressed (p = 0.04) relative to chicks on control diets. Analysis indicated suppression of total Ig production (p = 0.025 with comparisonwise α level = 0.017) between control and 0.4 μg Hg/g wet food intake treatment groups. Furthermore, the control group exhibited a higher degree of variability in antibody response compared to the Hg groups, suggesting that in addition to reducing the mean response, Hg treatment reduced the normal variation attributable to other biological factors. We observed bursal lymphoid depletion in chicks receiving the 1.2 μg Hg/g treatment (p = 0.017) and a marginally significant effect (p = 0.025) in chicks receiving the 0.4 μg Hg/g diet. These findings suggest that common loon chick immune systems may be compromised at an ecologically relevant dietary exposure concentration (0.4 μg Hg/g wet wt food intake). We also found that chicks hatched from eggs collected from low-pH lakes exhibited higher levels of lymphoid depletion in bursa tissue relative to chicks hatched from eggs collected from neutral-pH lakes.