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High-precision isotopic analysis sheds new light on mercury metabolism in long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas)

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Abstract

Whales accumulate mercury (Hg), but do not seem to show immediate evidence of toxic effects. Analysis of different tissues (liver, kidney, muscle) and biofluids (blood, milk) from a pod of stranded long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) showed accumulation of Hg as a function of age, with a significant decrease in the MeHg fraction. Isotopic analysis revealed remarkable differences between juvenile and adult whales. During the first period of life, Hg in the liver became isotopically lighter (δ 202 Hg decreased) with a strongly decreasing methylmercury (MeHg) fraction. We suggest this is due to preferential demethylation of MeHg with the lighter Hg isotopes and transport of MeHg to less sensitive organs, such as the muscles. Also changes in diet, with high MeHg intake in utero and during lactation, followed by increasing consumption of solid food contribute to this behavior. Interestingly, this trend in δ 202 Hg is reversed for livers of adult whales (increasing δ 202 Hg value), accompanied by a progressive decrease of δ 202 Hg in muscle at older ages. These total Hg (THg) isotopic trends suggest changes in the Hg metabolism of the long-finned pilot whales, development of (a) detoxification mechanism(s) (e.g., though the formation of HgSe particles), and Hg redistribution across the different organs.

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Bolea-Fernandez, E., Rua-Ibarz, A., Krupp, E. M., Feldmann, J., & Vanhaecke, F. (2019). High-precision isotopic analysis sheds new light on mercury metabolism in long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas). Scientific Reports, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-43825-z

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