Molting seals shed mercury along with fur

MOLTING METAL Northern elephant seals collect toxic mercury in their hair; shedding then boosts local pollution levels, a study finds.

After smoke stacks and industrial waste, researchers can add lounging seals to the list of mercury polluters.

Hair from Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) is loaded with the toxic metal. And when shed, that hair can boost mercury levels in surrounding seawater by about 17 times, researchers report September 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The finding may solve a long-standing mystery of why remote, seemingly pristine coastal areas where seals congregate can be hot spots for mercury pollution, harboring hazardous levels of the neurotoxin, the authors say.

“It’s important to be aware of this phenomenon, just so we know where to identify those hot spots,” says coauthor Jennifer Cossaboon, an environmental health researcher at San Diego State University in California.


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