Cadmium toxicity threatening wildlife in Rocky Mountains

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- An alarming number of white-tailed ptarmigan in a large region of the southern Rocky Mountains are suffering from acute cadmium poisoning -- an exposure to high concentrations of the extremely toxic trace metal.

Scientists report Thursday in the journal Nature that 46 percent of the adult birds surveyed in a 10,000-square kilometer area in south-central Colorado were found with cadmium accumulations in their kidneys well above the toxic threshold of 100 parts per million.

Cadmium toxicity causes kidney and liver dysfunction, brittle bones, and adversely affects reproduction and survival.

Lead author James R. Larison, an Oregon State University professor and alpine ecologist, said the findings are not unlike those that linked the pesticide DDT to a problem of thin-eggshells in the peregrine falcon three decades ago. The implications of the toxicity go beyond a single species.

"What we found in our study was that a particular genus of plants -- willows -- were 'biomagnifying' or concentrating cadmium," Larison said. "They act as biological pumps, increasing the concentrations of cadmium by two orders of magnitude. Birds eat a lot of willow, especially in the winter when other foods are scarce.

"They aren't the only creatures to eat willow, though," he added. "The possibility exists that deer, elk, moose, snowshoe rabbits, beaver and other animals may face similar problems, just as it is possible that other plants -- including some vegetables -- may have the same abilities to biomagnify cadmium that willow does."

Larison said the human health risk from eating ptarmigan likely is small, unless the internal organs are consumed. But, he added, many people eat vegetables grown in the area and these could pose a risk to human health.

The former director of Sea Grant Communications at Oregon State University, Larison has spent the past four years at Cornell University pursuing his doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biolo

Contact: Jim Larison
Oregon State University

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