Long-term changes to food web structures and mercury biomagnification in three large, inland North American lakes
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Numerous anthropogenic disturbances have occurred in large lakes over recent decades. These may alter concentrations of the biomagnifying contaminant mercury (Hg) in fish, but long-term impacts of disturbances on Hg trophodynamics are poorly understood. Elemental analyses of archived museum ichthyology specimens could be used to study historical, pre-disturbance fish food webs, but there is uncertainty about effects of chemical preservatives on the results of such analyses. In this thesis, long-term preservation effects were studied, and archived fish were used to reconstruct historical food webs and Hg trophodynamic patterns in three large North American lakes, Nipigon, Simcoe and Champlain. After 24 months of formalin/ethanol preservation, fish muscle delta-15N and delta-13C had average changes of +0.4 ‰ and -0.9 ‰, respectively. Shifts in mean Hg concentration was +5 % after 12 months. A suite of 26 other elements analyzed over 24 months showed consistent responses to preservation, usually involving an increase in concentration immediately following preservation. In the second phase of the thesis, stable isotope and Hg analyses were performed on archived and modern fish from the study lakes, dating to the 1920s-60s and 2006-7, respectively. Trophic relationships were often relatively stable over time, but stable isotope metrics revealed a decrease in Lake Nipigon delta-15N range and less pelagic feeding among Lake Simcoe pumpkinseed and yellow perch. In Lake Champlain, the re-introduction of lake trout in recent decades did not have a major effect on overall food web dimensions. Significant Hg biomagnification factors were found in 1920s and 2006-7 Lake Nipigon (which were not statistically distinguishable from each other) and 2006 Lake Champlain. These biomagnification factors ranged from 0.09 to 0.17, which is within the range found in other studies globally. Archived fish and government monitoring records indicated that fish Hg concentrations decreased in Lakes Simcoe and Champlain since historical periods, but remained similar or increased in Lake Nipigon. This thesis confirms the utility of archived fish for elemental analyses. It highlights the risks of Hg contamination and food web change that may be faced by remote lakes, and it provides evidence for relatively stable Hg biomagnification rates in large lakes.