Aarhus University Seal

Anthropogenic and Climatic Drivers of Long-Term Changes of Mercury and Feeding Ecology in Arctic Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) Populations

New publication by Jean-Pierre Desforges, Peter Outridge, Keith A. Hobson, Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, and Rune Dietz


We assessed long-term changes in the feeding ecology and mercury (Hg) accumulation in Eastern High Arctic-Baffin Bay beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) using total Hg and stable isotope (δ13C, δ15N) assays in teeth samples from historical (1854–1905) and modern (1985–2000) populations. Mean δ13C values in teeth declined significantly over time, from −13.01 ± 0.55‰ historically to −14.41 ± 0.28‰ in 2000, while no consistent pattern was evident for δ15N due to high individual variability within each period. The temporal shift in isotopic niche is consistent with beluga feeding ecology changing in recent decades to a more pelagic and less isotopically diverse diet or an ecosystem wide change in isotope profiles. Mercury concentrations in modern beluga teeth were 3–5 times higher on average than those in historical beluga. These results are similar to the long-term trends of Hg and feeding ecology reported in other beluga populations and in other Arctic marine predators. Similar feeding ecology shifts across regions and species indicate a consistent increased pelagic diet response to climate change as the Arctic Ocean progressively warmed and lost sea ice. Previously, significant temporal Hg increase in beluga and other Arctic animals was attributed solely to direct inputs of anthropogenic Hg from long-range sources. Recent advances in understanding the Arctic marine Hg cycle suggest an additional, complementary possibility─increased inputs of terrestrial Hg of mixed anthropogenic-natural origin, mobilized from permafrost and other Arctic soils by climate warming. At present, it is not possible to assign relative importance to the two processes in explaining the rise of Hg concentrations in modern Arctic marine predators.