September 17, 2012

Biologists look skyward for clues to human health

Researchers based in Gorham are studying bald eagles, loons and other species for threats to people.

By North Cairn
Staff Writer

Based on the premise that what happens to the health of bald eagles and loons might someday be what's in store for us, a small group of wildlife biologists based in Gorham is researching such species to find out how they are dealing with changes to ecosystems.

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By studying birds such as this juvenile bald eagle, scientists hope to glean information about environmental health.

Photo by Rick Gray

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Researchers from the Biodiversity Research Institute in Gorham find that loons with high levels of mercury do not reproduce as successfully as those with low levels or no mercury toxins.

Photo by Nina Schoch


WHAT: “Innovative Wildlife Science,” a gathering designed to inform the public about ongoing research by the Biodiversity Research Institute. Also on hand will be James M. Fowler, the longtime host of Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom.”

WHEN: 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: The aft deck of DiMillo’s on the Water Restaurant in Portland.

INFO: Call 207-839-7600, ext. 201.

Biologists from the Biodiversity Research Institute are following the lives of loons, eagles, peregrine falcons and other species across the nation and in some cases across continents.

These birds and other "indicator species," they say, offer cautionary signals about the health of the environment, threats to wildlife and risks to people. The species' interaction with human functions can affect policies on development and other activities.

Species such as loons, for example, have been substantially affected by mercury and other toxins from power plants and other industrial emissions. The migration patterns of peregrine falcons could affect where offshore turbines or wind farms might be built.

The institute will offer the public a glimpse of its work Thursday at an event at DiMillo's on the Water Restaurant in Portland.

Researchers from the institute have chosen several key "sentinels of pollution," including loons, eagles, peregrine falcons, salt marsh sparrows, northern water thrushes, bats, walleye pike and largemouth bass, to help analyze the overall health of various ecosystems and how the species' life cycles fit into a larger environmental picture.

"The best indicators are the fish-eating birds," said Chris DeSorbo, director of the institute's raptor program.


Some of these birds and animals share an important characteristic with humans -- a position at the top of a food chain. Their place in the scheme of things makes them particularly interesting to scientists, because it offers insight into how various toxins pose health threats to people.

The institute's mission is to monitor and enhance biodiversity, both in the United States and globally, and researchers from the organization regularly collaborate with other states' researchers and scientists in other countries.

But "the core of what we do is focused in Maine," DeSorbo said. Through various studies and at numerous sites, wildlife research biologists like DeSorbo are working to "fill data gaps that need to be addressed" so that policymakers and legislators can have as full a picture as possible of changing environmental conditions.

Much of the work focuses on "contaminant levels in wildlife (and) contaminant exposure in the environment," said DeSorbo. His own ongoing research has yielded information from the banding of 700 eagles, as well as taking blood samples from nestlings, to establish mercury levels in bald eagles. One surprising finding, he said, is that mercury levels in eagles nesting on inland lakes run higher than what is generally recorded in the scientific literature.

"In Maine, the typical scenario is ... that it's atmospheric deposition," not direct deposits in water that causes such raised levels of contamination. Because mercury can travel in air for a long time over great distances, Maine is the end point for a significant amount of the toxin that originates in states west of here, DeSorbo said. "We're at the tailpipe of the nation."

Mercury is released during various industrial processes, including the burning of coal and waste, as well as metal production, said Nina Schoch, a wildlife veterinarian and coordinator of the institute's Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation. It settles in water, is picked up by fish, and passed up the food chain to birds, such as loons and ospreys. Humans absorb mercury through eating fish and shellfish.

The institute's wildlife scientists working in Maine and upstate New York have learned that loons are "particularly susceptible to environmental contaminants" such as mercury, Schoch said.

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