Identifying the origin of lead poisoning in white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) chicks at an important South African breeding colony: a stable lead isotope approach

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Elevated lead levels in scavenging raptors can originate from a variety of environmental and anthropogenic sources, including soil, water, mining activities and legacy lead from leaded fuel, but has mostly been attributed to fragments of lead-based ammunition embedded in the tissues of carcasses. To identify the origins of lead in the tissues of white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) chicks at Dronfield Nature Reserve, South Africa, we used MC-ICP-MS to compare the isotopic composition of lead in blood samples to those of soil in the chicks’ immediate environment, different mining activities in South Africa and lead ammunition commonly used in hunting and game management practices. The isotopic ratios in vulture blood samples ranged widely (207Pb/206Pb: 0.827–0.911), but fell within those measured for ammunition (0.761-0.938). Dronfield water can be excluded as a significant source, as the lead concentration for water was below detection limits. Uranium, coal, atmospheric Pb, legacy Pb from fuel and Pb mining can also be excluded as significant sources, based on the limited overlap with Pb isotopic ratios measured in vulture blood. Whereas 55% of chicks we sampled displayed isotopic ratios consistent with Dronfield soil, the low local Pb concentration and the low extractable Pb levels in South African soil in general, imply that soil Pb is unlikely the major source of Pb in WBV chicks, especially in birds with elevated blood Pb levels, i.e. > 20 µg/dL. Our results, when considered in the context of vulture feeding ecology and low Pb levels in non-scavenging birds in South Africa, imply the major source of elevated Pb levels in WBV chicks to be fragments of lead-based ammunition embedded in the carrion fed to them by their parents. Keywords: Lead, vultures, isotopes, ammunition, mining, soil.

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Environmental Science and Pollution Research

Item Type:
Journal Article

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