Distribution of contaminants in the environment and wildlife habitat use: a case study with lead and waterfowl on the Upper Texas Coast

Abstract

The magnitude and distribution of lead contamination remain unknown in wetland systems. Anthropogenic deposition of lead may be contributing to negative population-level effects in waterfowl and other organisms that depend on dynamic wetland habitats, particularly if they are unable to detect and differentiate levels of environmental contamination by lead. Detection of lead and behavioral response to elevated lead levels by waterfowl is poorly understood, but necessary to characterize the risk of lead-contaminated habitats. We measured the relationship between lead contamination of wetland soils and habitat use by mottled ducks (Anas fulvigula) on the Upper Texas Coast, USA. Mottled ducks have historically experienced disproportionate negative effects from lead exposure, and exhibit a unique nonmigratory life history that increases risk of exposure when inhabiting contaminated areas. We used spatial interpolation to estimate lead in wetland soils of the Texas Chenier Plain National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Soil lead levels varied across the refuge complex (0.01–1085.51 ppm), but greater lead concentrations frequently corresponded to areas with high densities of transmittered mottled ducks. We used soil lead concentration data and MaxENT species distribution models to quantify relationships among various habitat factors and locations of mottled ducks. Use of habitats with greater lead concentration increased during years of a major disturbance. Because mottled ducks use habitats with high concentrations of lead during periods of stress, have greater risk of exposure following major disturbance to the coastal marsh system, and no innate mechanism for avoiding the threat of lead exposure, we suggest the potential presence of an ecological trap of quality habitat that warrants further quantification at a population scale for mottled ducks.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge field staff on the Texas Chenier Plain National Wildlife Refuge complex, particularly the contributions of Patrick Walther who was an invaluable asset to data collection and mottled duck conservation as a whole. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the United States Government. The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Funding

Financial and logistical support for this project was provided in part by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Region 2 Migratory Bird Office (Jeff Haskins) and Division of Refuges, United States Fish and Wildlife Service Avian Health and Disease Program, United States Geologic Survey Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Stephen F. Austin State University, and Texas Tech University.

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Correspondence to David Haukos.

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Kearns, B., McDowell, S., Moon, J. et al. Distribution of contaminants in the environment and wildlife habitat use: a case study with lead and waterfowl on the Upper Texas Coast. Ecotoxicology 28, 809–824 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10646-019-02079-1

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Keywords

  • Anas fulvigula
  • Contaminants
  • Ecological trap
  • Lead
  • Mottled duck
  • Species distribution model