Selenium, Salty Water, and Deformed Birds

  • Harry M. Ohlendorf
Part of the Emerging Topics in Ecotoxicology book series (ETEP, volume 3)


Selenium was identified in the 1930s as the cause of embryo mortality and severe embryo deformities when chickens were fed grains grown on seleniferous soils in South Dakota. There had been no documented occurrences of such effects in wild birds before 1983, when we studied the effects of agricultural irrigation drainage water contaminants on birds feeding and nesting at Kesterson Reservoir, located within the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley of California. The Reservoir was used for disposal of subsurface saline drainage waters from agricultural fields and was intended to provide beneficial habitat for wildlife, particularly waterfowl and other aquatic birds. Analyses of food-chain biota (plants, aquatic invertebrates, and fish) and bird tissues or eggs showed that selenium was the only chemical found at concentrations high enough to cause the observed adverse effects on bird health or reproduction. Results of the studies at Kesterson Reservoir stimulated interest and concern about the effects of selenium in agricultural drainage throughout the western USA where similar scenarios might exist (as well as in industrial settings such as mining and power generation). Those studies showed that selenium-related problems with agricultural drainage were widespread and locally significant. Problems of managing selenium in agricultural drainwater are difficult to solve or mitigate, despite intensive efforts to do so. This chapter briefly describes the field and laboratory studies that documented the effects of selenium in birds using wetlands receiving seleniferous agricultural drainage, the linkages between those studies and subsequent efforts to address the issue of selenium contamination in agricultural drainage water, and the consequent conservation gains.


Drainage Water Selenium Concentration National Wildlife Refuge Aquatic Bird Agricultural Drainage 
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While conducting the initial studies at Kesterson (1983–1985), I was employed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which provided funding for the research. Many other USFWS biologists participated in the field studies, conducted the related experimental studies, or provided useful insight concerning interpretation of research findings. For such contributions, I especially acknowledge the help of T.W. Aldrich, D.R. Clark, Jr., G.H. Heinz, D.J. Hoffman, R.L. Hothem, M.K. Saiki, J.P. Skorupa, F.E. Smith, and G.R. Zahm. Biological monitoring at Kesterson Reservoir has been conducted by CH2M HILL (primarily by G.M. Santolo) for Reclamation since 1987. Scientists from other agencies (such as I. Barnes and T.S. Presser from USGS) also provided very helpful contributions to the studies of selenium at Kesterson Reservoir.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CH2M HillSacramentoUSA

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