Relationship between blood lead levels and physiological stress in mute swans (Cygnus olor) in municipal beaches of the southern Baltic

By Włodzimierz Meissner, Łukasz J. Binkowski, James Barker, Andreas Hahn and Marta Trzeciak

Lead is one of the non-essential metals that can become a serious environmental threat to the human population and wildlife causing various toxic impairments and pathologies. Waterfowl are especially sensitive to lead exposure as they stay in areas with a high risk of lead pollution due to hunting and fishing pressures.

© Steve Nicholls / WWT

This study aims to determine recent blood lead levels in 45 live Mute Swans in the southern Baltic, in the Gulf of Gdańsk and to test the hypothesis that birds with elevated lead levels have a higher physiological stress. Mean concentration of lead in blood was 0.239 μg/g (range 0.028–0.675 μg/g). Almost half of the individuals examined in this study had increased blood Pb levels above the threshold level (0.23 μg/g), however none of them showed behavioural signs of Pb poisoning. Although the dominant food of Mute Swans staying at municipal beaches is bread delivered by people, which has low lead levels, lead was found in all blood samples taken from mute swans.

In the study area, another possible source of lead poisoning, other than from ammunition, is connected with various anthropogenic activities, such as municipal sewage works. Moreover, poor diet results in greater susceptibility to absorption of lead and this may have an additional influence on elevated lead levels in blood of these birds. The Pb level was increased with heterophils to lymphocytes (H/L) ratio, which is used as a measure of longer-term physiological stress. The mean lead level in blood was higher in young birds than in adults, which may be a consequence of adults forcing them to take less calorific food from water plants containing elevated levels of lead in the area studied. However, it is difficult to disentangle this from other factors that may influence sensitivity to lead poisoning.

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