Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


Rebecca M. Dickhut


Antarctic seabirds including Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae), south polar skuas (Catharacta maccormicki), southern giant petrels (Macronectes gigantus) are high trophic level predators that accumulate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) present in the food webs in which they forage. Little is known about the levels of POPs in some Antarctic organisms (e.g. southern giant petrels), as well as the long-term trends of POPs in the Antarctic ecosystem. Samples from all three seabird species were collected post mortem, including eggs, from the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) and in the Ross Sea throughout the austral summer breeding seasons of 2004--2006. The samples were analyzed for C and N stable isotopes and POPs including organochlorine pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and brominated diphenyl ethers (BDEs). The objectives of this study were to: (1) evaluate the long-term trends of POP residues in Adelie penguins, (2) compare POP levels within livers of the three seabird species based on migratory patterns and trophic level using stable isotope analysis of delta15N and delta13C, and (3) demonstrate POPs can be used as tracers of Antarctic seabird ecology. POPs in Antarctic biota were first evaluated using Adelie penguin tissues and a long-term analysis including data from the current study showed SigmaDDT has not declined in WAP penguins for more than 30 years. Indeed, the presence of p,p'-DDT in these birds indicates that there is a current source of DDT to the WAP marine food web, and both measurements and calculations suggest that this source of DDT is related to climate driven environmental change in the region. A more broad analysis including all three seabird species showed SigmaPCBs, SigmaDDTs, Sigmachlordanes and mirex are 3--100 times higher in migratory seabird livers than the endemic penguins, while hexachlorobenzene (HCB) exhibits no difference in concentration between the three seabird species. Model predictions compared to measured output of delta13C and delta13N indicate a stronger correlation between delta13C and less volatile POP concentrations demonstrating the heavy influence of winter migration on the contaminant loads of seabirds that breed in Antarctica. Finally, discrepancies in POP ratios between migratory and endemic seabird eggs and fat in combination with stable isotope signatures gave insight into seabird evolutionary breeding strategies. For example, the relative abundance of SigmaPCBs was highest in south polar skua eggs and endogenous lipid input into skua eggs was estimated at >79% by examining discrepancies in contaminant ratios. The combined stable isotope and contaminant data indicate that south polar skuas and southern giant petrels employee different combinations of income and capital breeding strategies.



© The Author