Study Tests Impact of Mercury on Ibises; UF Researchers Will Focus on How the Metal Affects the Birds' Behavior

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Byline: NATHAN CRABBE

GAINESVILLE -- Little is known about how the heavy metal mercury affects ibises, wading birds that live in the Everglades. But some University of Florida researchers are hoping to find out.

About 160 ibises will be given food with varying levels of mercury contamination during the next five years of their project. The wading birds are being housed in the newly opened Wetlands Ecological Research Aviary in east Gainesville.

The research will help determine the level of mercury that affects the health and behavior of ibises, said Peter Frederick, project leader and an associate research professor in UF's wildlife ecology and conservation department.

"Wildlife are not protected by current human health regulations," Frederick said.

The project comes as Gainesville Regional Utilities considers building a new coal-fired power plant and the city of Newberry considers a plan to double the size of Florida Rock Industries' cement plant there.

But the inspiration for the study is farther south, in the Everglades. Since the early 1990s, Frederick said, several developments have significantly reduced mercury pollution there. Pollution-scrubbing equipment has been added to trash incinerators, and mercury has been removed from the batteries and paint burned at those facilities.

Researchers believe they're seeing the benefits of those changes, he said, as the numbers of certain types of wading birds have doubled and tripled in recent years. The UF study will test the theory by exposing four groups of ibises to varying levels of mercury. …