Methylmercury (MeHg) is a globally distributed pollutant that can negatively affect wildlife. Bird feathers are often used as a monitoring tool of contaminant exposure, but variability in total mercury (THg) content in flight feathers has raised concerns over their utility. The objective of this study was to quantify blood and feather THg depuration through the progression of primary feather molt in order to clarify the relationship between blood and feather mercury concentration, and test the reliability of feather THg measurements as a monitoring tool in wild songbirds. Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) were experimentally exposed to dietary MeHg and their blood and primary feather THg concentrations were measured during exposure and post-exposure periods of three months each. A rapid decrease in feather and blood THg concentration through molt progression was observed. Primary feather THg content was higher in feathers grown during the MeHg exposure period compared to those grown during the post-exposure period. Primary feather THg concentration was highly correlated with blood THg measured at the time of feather growth (R = 0.98), indicating that, although THg concentration is variable among flight feathers, this reflects temporally sequential molting patterns and declining blood concentration during depuration. Primary flight feathers thus provide an accurate and useful tool for estimating the mercury burden of birds at the time a chosen feather was grown, and have the potential to be an effective and reliable biomonitoring tool for species with well-characterized molt patterns.
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Medical Subject Headings: animal structures food and beverages