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northern fur seal Ody
harbor seal moms and pups on a beach

Fetal Mercury Concentrations in Harbor Seals: Associated Drivers and Outcomes

  • Pollution


Mercury (Hg) is a well-known toxicant in wildlife and humans. High total Hg concentrations ([THg]) have been reported in central California harbor seals Phoca vitulina richardii. We evaluated the effects of presence/absence of early natal coat (lanugo), year (2012 to 2017), sex, stranding location, and trophic ecology (ẟ13C and ẟ15N values) on hair [THg] along coastal central California. Also examined were [THg] effects on growth rates of pups in rehabilitation and probability of release (e.g., successful rehabilitation). The [THg] ranged from 0.46–81.98 mg kg−1 dw, and ẟ15N and ẟ13C ranged from 13.6–21.5‰, and −17.2 to −13.0‰, respectively. Stranding location, year, and presence of lanugo coat were important factors explaining variation in [THg]. Seals from Sonoma and San Mateo County had higher [THg] than other locations. Seals with full or partial lanugo coat had lower [THg]. Seals from 2016 and 2017 had higher [THg] than those from 2015. Hair [THg] exceeded lower and upper toxicological thresholds (>20 mg kg−1 by year (5.88% to 23.53%); >30 mg kg−1 (0% to 12.31%)) with a pronounced increase from 2015 to 2016. Pups in 2017 had significantly higher odds ratio of [THg] above 20 mg kg−1 than pups of 2015, and pups in 2016 had significantly higher odds ratio than those from 2013 and 2015 (similar when using 30 mg kg−1). Pups in Sonoma County had the highest odds ratio for [THg] in lanugo above 20 mg kg−1. ẟ15N values were higher in 2015–2017, particularly relative to 2014, probably associated with the El Niño event. The [THg] was not a good predictor for probability of release and mass-specific growth rates in captivity. Further investigation of temporal trends of [THg] in harbor seals is warranted given the relatively high percentage of samples exceeding threshold values, particularly in the most recent sampling years.

Murillo-Cisneros, D.A., McHuron, E.A., Zenteno-Savín, T., Castellini, J.M., Field, C.L. and O'Hara, T.M., 2022. Fetal mercury concentrations in central California Pacific harbor seals: Associated drivers and outcomes. Science of The Total Environment, p.153246.

Cara Field

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