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Assessment of contaminants, health and survival of migratory shorebirds in natural versus artificial wetlands – The potential of wastewater treatment plants as alternative habitats


  • Ross, Tobias A.
  • Zhang, Junjie
  • Wille, Michelle
  • Ciesielski, Tomasz Maciej
  • Asimakopoulos, Alexandros G.
  • Lemesle, Prescillia
  • Skaalvik, Tonje G.
  • Atkinson, Robyn
  • Jessop, Roz
  • Jaspers, Veerle L.B.
  • Klaassen, Marcel


Science of The Total Environment, Volume 904, 2023-12-15

Article Link: Click here

The rapid destruction of natural wetland habitats over past decades has been partially offset by an increase in artificial wetlands. However, these also include wastewater treatment plants, which may pose a pollution risk to the wildlife using them. We studied two long-distance Arctic-breeding migratory shorebird species, curlew sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea, n = 69) and red-necked stint (Calidris ruficollis, n = 103), while on their Australian non-breeding grounds using an artificial wetland at a wastewater treatment plant (WTP) and a natural coastal wetland. We compared pollutant exposure (elements and per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances/PFASs), disease (avian influenza), physiological status (oxidative stress) of the birds at the two locations from 2011 to 2020, and population survival from 1978 to 2019. Our results indicated no significant differences in blood pellet pollutant concentrations between the habitats except mercury (WTP median: 224 ng/g, range: 19–873 ng/g; natural wetland: 160 ng/g, 22–998 ng/g) and PFASs (total PFASs WTP median: 85.1 ng/g, range: <0.01–836 ng/g; natural wetland: 8.02 ng/g, <0.01–85.3 ng/g) which were higher at the WTP, and selenium which was lower at the WTP (WTP median: 5000 ng/g, range: 1950–34,400 ng/g; natural wetland: 19,200 ng/g, 4130–65,200 ng/g). We also measured higher blood o,o′-dityrosine (an indicator of protein damage) at the WTP. No significant differences were found for adult survival, but survival of immature birds at the WTP appeared to be lower which could be due to higher dispersal to other wetlands. Interestingly, we found active avian influenza infections were higher in the natural habitat, while seropositivity was higher in the WTP, seemingly not directly related to pollutant exposure. Overall, we found limited differences in pollutant exposure, health and survival of the shorebirds in the two habitats. Our findings suggest that appropriately managed wastewater treatment wetlands could provide a suitable alternative habitat to these migratory species, which may aid in curbing the decline of shorebird populations from widespread habitat loss.