Blood concentrations of PCBs and DDTs in an avian predator endemic to southern Africa: Associations with habitat, electrical transformers and diet

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Persistent pollutants such as organochlorine compounds (OCs) have been highlighted as a cause of population decline in avian predators. Understanding patterns of OCs contamination can be crucial for the conservation of affected species, yet little is known on these threats to African raptors. Here we report on OC concentrations in an endangered predator endemic to southern Africa, the Black Harrier Circus maurus. Blood samples were collected in 2012-2014 from wild nestlings (n = 90) and adults (n = 23) in south-western South Africa, where agriculture and urbanization have developed rapidly since the 1950s. Polychlorinated biphenyl (ΣPCB) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (ΣDDT, for p,p'-DDT + p,p'-DDE) were detected in 79% and 84% of sampled individuals, respectively, with varying concentrations among demographic groups: nestlings had significantly higher ΣPCB and p,p'-DDT concentrations than adults, while adults had higher levels of p,p'-DDE than nestlings. Levels of ΣPCB significantly increased with an index of electric transformer density, a measure of the number and power of electric transformers around active nests. We propose this index as a useful tool for assessing ΣPCB exposure risk in other wildlife. Levels of p,p'-DDE significantly increased with the proportion of wetlands within the breeding territory, and also with the proportion of bird biomass in the diet. No association was found between OC levels and the protected area status of nesting sites. Physiological effects of contaminants were also manifest in increased white blood cell counts with higher p,p'-DDT levels. Heterophil to lymphocyte ratio increased with higher ΣPCB levels, suggesting increased physiological stress and reduced immunity in contaminated individuals. Our results suggest that OCs are still a current cause of concern for endangered Black Harriers, as well as other sympatric predators.

Publication Title:

Environmental Pollution

Item Type:
Journal Article

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