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Assessing Seabirds of South Florida for Marine Environmental Contaminants

Grant Winner

  • Richard Dodge, Ph.D.


  • Richard Dodge, Ph.D.


Award Winners

Environmental contaminants originate from both natural and anthropogenic sources, and contamination levels have increased at a much higher rate during the past century. Contaminants enter the ocean through either atmospheric deposition or river outflows, where they are taken up by phytoplankton at the base of the marine food web. Many of these substances are chemically stable, and they therefore accumulate in tissues with each higher trophic level in the food web, a process called bioaccumulation. While contaminant bioaccumulation also applies to predatory fishes and marine mammals, the relative abundance and visibility of seabirds make them a highly viable choice to act as sentinels of the overall health of the marine ecosystem. Heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, along with fertilizer and pesticide sources of organochlorine, are contaminants of particular concern because of their known physiological toxicity. The Fisheries Research Laboratory has been conducting preliminary research on seabirds since 2012, building collaborations with local wildlife rescue agencies for specimens and obtaining the numerous required permits. Combining new and archived seabird specimens to provide a range of species and temporal-spatial variability within South Florida, heavy metal and organochloride pollutant data will be collected from samples of both feathers and internal tissues, such as the kidney, muscle, and liver. Sample collection and processing will involve a NSU graduate student and a collaboration with an environmental contaminant biologist from the University of North Florida. These data will provide the first systematic estimates for environmental contaminant levels in South Florida seabirds, which will then be shared with regulatory agencies to minimize risks to local avian populations. The project will also establish NSU as the only academic center of seabird ecological research in South Florida, which would uniquely position the university for additional external seabird funding and publicity.

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