Environmental Science Major Camilla Fecteau Has a Love of Loons
Camilla Fecteau, who majored in environmental science at UMF, and, at this writing, is a college professor of biology, believes any efforts to safeguard Maine's loons might just save the state's human inhabitants, too.
When she's invited by regional lake associations to speak about various threats to loon populations - everything from boat collisions to lead poisoning from ingesting discarded fishing sinkers - the topic that gets the most time is mercury pollution.
And Fecteau's lesson on this complex hazard to loons begins with how electricity-producing practices in states to the south and west have a toxic impact on lakes and rivers in Maine, New Hampshire and other points downwind.
"The number-one source of mercury in the atmosphere comes from coal-fired power plants," she says. "In its natural state, mercury on the planet is locked up safely underground. But when we unearth and burn coal, we release that mercury into the air."
When that mercury gets deposited in the lakes and rivers of northern New England through rain and snow, she explains, it binds with sulfur (often abundant in low-oxygen aquatic environments) to form mercury sulfide, which can readily pass into bacterial cell membranes. After bacterial cells receive mercury sulfide, they release a neurotoxin, known as methyl mercury, back into the environment, where it can be taken up by plankton.
"Fish eat the plankton, and loons eat the fish," she says. "As methyl mercury moves up the food chain, the levels increase through bioaccumulation in high-trophic organisms- the animals near the top of the food chain."
Fecteau says loons can expel some methyl mercury through "depuration," which refers to excretion through molting (similar to the way humans expel toxins through hair growth) and laying eggs. ("That's good for the mother," she says, "but obviously not for the offspring.") Over a lifetime of up to 30 years, however, a loon may accumulate more of the neurotoxin than it can ever discharge. And she says that even though a loon probably wouldn't ever ingest enough methyl mercury to kill it outright, the cognitive effects of the bioaccumulation signal only a slower and more heartbreaking demise for the species.
"Methyl mercury affects the central nervous system, and we're increasingly seeing loons that are, for lack of better words, foggy-headed," she says. "They're making more little mistakes in the reproductive process. They're not as attentive during incubation and sometimes stay off the nest too long, leaving their eggs and young exposed to predators."
Despite her passion for loons, Fecteau endeavors "not to get preachy" about saving them - or ourselves in the process. Her "non-scientific community" audiences tend to realize on their own that humans, like loons, are a high-trophic species with the same capacity to bioaccumulate - and even longer life spans in which to aggregate neurotoxins like methyl mercury.
"If we could even minimally decrease our electricity use or turn to green energy sources, we could reduce the amount of mercury that follows weather patterns and gets deposited through rain and snow," she says. "Higher energy costs are a hard pill to swallow, especially now. But we can look at what's happening to loons as a predictor of what might happen to us."