Bioaccumulation of mercury in pelagic freshwater food webs

C. J. Watras, R. C. Back, S. Halvorsen, R. J.M. Hudson, K. A. Morrison, S. P. Wente

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Current paradigms regarding the bioaccumulation of mercury are rooted in observations that monomethyl mercury (meHg) biomagnifies along pelagic food chains. However, mechanisms regulating the formation of meHg, its initial incorporation at the base of pelagic food chains, and its subsequent trophic transfer remain controversial. Here we use field data from 15 northern Wisconsin lakes, equilibrium aqueous speciation modeling, and statistical modeling to revisit several hypotheses about the uptake, distribution, and fate of inorganic Hg (Hg(II)) and meHg in aquatic biota. Our field data comprise determinations of total Hg (Hg(T)) and meHg in surface waters, sediments, microseston, zooplankton, and small fish in each of the study lakes. For these lake waters, strong positive correlations between DOC and aqueous concentrations of mercury along with negative correlations between DOC and the seston-water partitioning of mercury indicate that organic ligands bind Hg(II) and meHg strongly enough to dominate their apparent aqueous speciation. In the microseston, zooplankton and fish, meHg concentrations and bioaccumulation factors (BAFs) increased with increasing trophic level while biotic concentrations of Hg(II) decreased - indicating that meHg was indeed the biomagnified species of mercury. For all trophic levels, meHg concentrations varied positively with the calculated aqueous concentration of meHg+ (free ion), especially when coupled with pH, or meHgOH (hydroxide) species but not with meHgCl0, the neutral chloride complex. These findings suggest that: (1) the passive uptake of meHg does not control bioaccumulation at the base of aquatic food webs in nature (i.e. phyto- and bacterioplankton); (2) correlation with pH and DOC largely reflect the supply and bioavailability of meHg to lower trophic levels; and (3) meHg concentrations at higher trophic levels reflect uptake at low trophic levels and other factors, such as diet and growth. Low concentrations of meHg in surficial sediments indicate that the fates of biotic Hg(II) and meHg are different. Most biotic meHg is demethylated rather than buried in lake sediments. Copyright (C) 1998 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)183-208
Number of pages26
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Aug 28 1998


  • Bioaccumulation
  • Fish
  • Mercury
  • Methyl mercury
  • Phytoplankton
  • Sediments
  • Trace metals
  • Zooplankton

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution

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