A white ibis in Florida, by Terry Walker (Wiki Commons)
Between planning our impending move to Asheville in January, traveling to Minnesota for the Holidays, plowing through some freelance assignments that all rolled in at the same time, wrapping up the Blog Column of the Week for 2010, and working on my book (ha! supposedly…), blogging has gotten a bit lost in my daily fray. I miss cyber musings! The worst part about being too busy to breathe is that that’s when I seem to notice all these great blog post ideas floating around.
One such idea that popped up in my email inbox last week was a press release about a University of Florida experimental study examining the effect of mercury on white ibises.* These birds, if you are unfamiliar, are gorgeous. Nothing screams Florida! to me than seeing a flock of these snow-white birds careen overhead with their curved fleshy-pink beaks silhouetted in the orange dawn light. Settlers to southern Florida in the olden days referred to them as Swamp Chickens because they lived in the swamps and, well, they supposedly taste like chicken. The juveniles and first-year birds are a splotchy mess of brown and white feathers, but the adult are pure white with a curved, salmon pink bill. They use this bill when they wade in the shallows of lakes and swamps where they probe the mud for little reptiles, amphibians and fish. In breeding season, the males develop dark black tips on their wing that read like a personal ad: I iz reddy, chiks!
So it was with a little dismay that I learned UF researchers had found that exposing white ibis males to experimental levels of mercury causes hormonal shifts that spurs them to try mating with other males. The Miami Herald seized on this to say that mercury makes ibises gay, and National Geographic was not far behind. Let’s face it, the media loves gay animal stories.
So what was really going on?
It turns out the scientists were interested in learning whether mercury pollution in the wild affected white ibis reproduction or chick development. Mercury pollution was a problem historically in southern Florida. (Is it still? Anyone know?) A press release says: “The contaminant found its way into the Everglades via municipal and medical waste incineration, but during the 1990s, medical waste became more closely regulated and flashlight batteries that didn’t contain mercury replaced those that did.” So we can deduce from this that from the mid-1990s till now, supposedly mercury pollution has been lessening. (Someone holler out if they know it’s worsened.) Continue reading