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

(Continued from page 1)

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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.

Mercury, in particular, affects reproduction in loons, Schoch said. In acidic Adirondack lakes, loons with more than 3 parts per million of mercury produce fewer eggs, are lethargic and lack the energy to successfully incubate eggs in a nest.


These findings correlate with what Biodiversity Research Institute researchers are finding in Maine. Michael Chickering, the institute's Maine loon program field coordinator for Rangeley, has studied roughly 125 territorial pairs of loons, and his research focuses primarily on "productivity surveys."

The loons "are doing really well this year," he said. And there hasn't been any significant increase in mercury in the study areas for the past few years.

High levels of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, have been linked to increased rates of heart attack and cardiovascular disease in men and can even affect unborn children, Schoch has reported. Exposure to fetuses in the womb can lead to irreversible brain damage in extreme cases, Schoch outlines in "Adirondack Loons -- Sentinels of Mercury Pollution in New York's Aquatic Ecosystems." Continuing exposure can damage attention, language and memory in children.

Most of the challenges loons face are caused in one way or another by people, and many of the problems are longstanding and enduring. Even so, Schoch said she remains "guarded and hopeful" about the birds' future.

"I'm optimistic in the sense that with loons ... there's a lot more (public) awareness about mercury in the environment," Schoch said.

Certain federal actions, such as passage of the 1990 revisions to the 1955 Clean Air Act and the 2011 Safe Chemicals Act, expand the Environmental Protection Agency's role and responsibility for clean air and control of toxic chemicals. Such legislation helps ease some environmental concerns, researchers say. Last December, the EPA also finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, which regulates mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:


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