Historical and Present Day Mercury Contamination From Gold Mining in Three Feeding Guilds of Bats From the Peruvian Amazon

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Anjali Kumar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, United States and Tim Divoll, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, IN, United States
Miners in many countries use mercury as an amalgam to separate gold from river sediments. In the last twenty years the price of gold has risen and the number of small-scale, artisanal gold mining operations in the Amazon basin have also increased. The influx of mercury into natural river systems has detrimental consequences for the surrounding ecosystem and for organisms, particularly those at higher trophic levels. Toxic mercury levels have been shown to impair reproductive, neurological and behavioral functioning of organisms.

I used bats (Chiroptera) as a mammalian model system to study mercury contamination and accumulation due to gold mining from field caught and museum collection specimens in Amazonian Perú and showed that: (1) Total mercury concentrations in Amazonian bat species have increased over time since the 1920’s; (2) Bat species from sites with current active mining have higher concentrations of mercury than non-mining sites, with some species having levels exceeding those considered toxic for mammals; (3) Higher trophic levels of bats (piscivores and insectivores) bioaccumulate more mercury than bats of lower trophic levels (frugivores); (4) Bats located in present day uncontaminated sites have the same mercury levels as bats collected in the 1920’s from the Amazon basin.

The variety of bat feeding guilds allowed for a comparison of how mercury accumulation is affected by diet within one taxonomic order. The novel use of museum specimens allowed for a look back into the historical timeline of mercury contamination in the Amazon basin. Bats represent a new and exciting study system since, like humans, they are mammals and should therefore show similar neurochemical and behavioral responses to this toxic element.