Mercury exposure may cause birds to change their tune

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The amount of methylmercury, a neurotoxin, in the earth’s atmosphere has quadrupled since the days before industrialization, and its toxic effects are changing the songs being sung by birds in the area of Waynesboro, Virginia. An article in Environmental Health News explores how the mercury emitted by a nearby factory contaminated Waynesboro’s South River, affecting the animals that the area birds feed on. This ingestion of mercury may have altered the birds’ brains in a way that changed how they learned their songs.

Researchers analyzed the feathers of the South River-area birds and found high levels of mercury, and when they examined their brains, they found abnormalities characteristic of mercury poisoning. These same birds were singing songs that were simpler, shorter, and lower-pitched than the songs of birds in other areas.

Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health and a pioneering researcher on the effects of mercury exposure on children, said “Methylmercury can affect the very motor functions that control speech – something that may have a parallel in the bird world.”