Distribution of contaminants in the environment and wildlife habitat use: a case study with lead and waterfowl on the Upper Texas Coast

Brian Kearns, Stephen McDowell, Jena Moon, Elizabeth Rigby, Warren C. Conway, David Haukos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The magnitude and distribution of lead contamination remain unknown in wetland systems. Anthropogenic deposition of lead may be contributing to negative population-level effects in waterfowl and other organisms that depend on dynamic wetland habitats, particularly if they are unable to detect and differentiate levels of environmental contamination by lead. Detection of lead and behavioral response to elevated lead levels by waterfowl is poorly understood, but necessary to characterize the risk of lead-contaminated habitats. We measured the relationship between lead contamination of wetland soils and habitat use by mottled ducks (Anas fulvigula) on the Upper Texas Coast, USA. Mottled ducks have historically experienced disproportionate negative effects from lead exposure, and exhibit a unique nonmigratory life history that increases risk of exposure when inhabiting contaminated areas. We used spatial interpolation to estimate lead in wetland soils of the Texas Chenier Plain National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Soil lead levels varied across the refuge complex (0.01–1085.51 ppm), but greater lead concentrations frequently corresponded to areas with high densities of transmittered mottled ducks. We used soil lead concentration data and MaxENT species distribution models to quantify relationships among various habitat factors and locations of mottled ducks. Use of habitats with greater lead concentration increased during years of a major disturbance. Because mottled ducks use habitats with high concentrations of lead during periods of stress, have greater risk of exposure following major disturbance to the coastal marsh system, and no innate mechanism for avoiding the threat of lead exposure, we suggest the potential presence of an ecological trap of quality habitat that warrants further quantification at a population scale for mottled ducks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)809-824
Number of pages16
Issue number7
StatePublished - Sep 1 2019


  • Anas fulvigula
  • Contaminants
  • Ecological trap
  • Lead
  • Mottled duck
  • Species distribution model


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