Variation in terrestrial and aquatic sources of methylmercury in stream predators as revealed by stable mercury isotopes

Martin Tsz Ki Tsui, Joel D. Blum, Jacques C. Finlay, Steven J. Balogh, Yabing H. Nollet, Wendy J. Palen, Mary E. Power

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Mercury (Hg) is widely distributed in the environment, and its organic form, methylmercury (MeHg), can extensively bioaccumulate and biomagnify in aquatic and terrestrial food webs. Concentrations of MeHg in organisms are highly variable, and the sources in natural food webs are often not well understood. This study examined stable isotope ratios of MeHg (mass-dependent fractionation, as δ202HgMeHg; and mass-independent fractionation, as Δ199HgMeHg) in benthic invertebrates, juvenile steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), and water striders (Gerris remigis) along a stream productivity gradient, as well as carnivorous terrestrial invertebrates, in a forested watershed at the headwater of South Fork Eel River in northern California. Throughout the sampling sites, δ202HgMeHg (after correction due to the effect of MeHg photodegradation) was significantly different between benthic (median = -1.40% range, -2.34 to -0.78% total number of samples = 29) and terrestrial invertebrates (median = +0.51% range, -0.37 to +1.40% total number of samples = 9), but no major difference between these two groups was found for Δ199HgMeHg. Steelhead trout (52 individual fishes) have MeHg of predominantly aquatic origins, with a few exceptions at the upstream locations (e.g., 1 fish collected in a tributary had a purely terrestrial MeHg source and 4 fishes had mixed aquatic and terrestrial MeHg sources). Water striders (seven pooled samples) derive MeHg largely from terrestrial sources throughout headwater sections. These data suggest that direct terrestrial subsidy (e.g., terrestrial invertebrates falling into water) can be important for some stream predators in headwater streams and could represent an important means of transfer of terrestrially derived MeHg (e.g., in situ methylation within forests, atmospheric sources) to aquatic ecosystems. Moreover, these findings show that terrestrial subsidies can enhance MeHg bioaccumulation of consumers in headwater streams where aqueous MeHg levels are very low.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10128-10135
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 2 2014


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