Mercury exposure threatens Arctic fox survival

By Efrosini Costa

Mercury exposure threatens Arctic fox survival
Foxes in Arctic regions who survive on ocean prey are at risk from dangerously high levels of mercury.

Rising levels of mercury in seafood is a phenomenon plaguing human consumption.

But it seems emerging evidence is suggesting they’re are not immune to these changes either.

In fact, the accumulation of the toxin is believed to be playing a central role in the steep decline of foxes on one Russian island already, according to a study published in the journal PLOS One this week.

Mercury levels have increased dramatically in the last 100 years, with more of the toxic substance deposited in the Arctic region than anywhere else on the planet, according to the United Nations.

Predators found in the Arctic region have also been found to have ten times the levels of mercury than they did 150 years ago, the Arctic Council has said.

The reason for this seems to be connected to the Arctic animals’ diets. Foxes in the region survive almost entirely on sea birds and some seal carcasses.

Researchers, who examined hair samples and the food the Arctic foxes eat, found they had significantly higher levels of mercury when compared with their Icelandic cousins, who live inland and prey on rodent and non-marine birds.

They believe this could explain the shrinking numbers and poor health of the Arctic foxes that has seen them listed on the critically endangered species list. Originally, scientists believe this pattern may have been caused by an underlying infection, but failed to identify it exactly.

Climate change, resulting in declining levels of sea ice, has been linked to increasing levels of mercury found in the world’s oceans and subsequent accumulation of the toxin in the marine food chain.

Unfortunately, the researchers believe it is hard to disconnect the foxes from the source of their decline – their marine diet – and feel the only solution is to invest in the inland populations and sustain them for the long term.

The study’s authors believe their findings raise important questions about conservation and environmental protection in the Arctic.

Earlier this year, more than 140 countries agreed on a treaty to curb mercury pollution in the area.


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