Trace metal distribution in feathers from migratory, pelagic birds using high-resolution synchrotron X-ray fluorescence microscopy

Nicholas Howell, Jennifer L. Lavers, David Paterson, Richard Garrett, Richard Banati

ANSTO Research Selections, p41-44 (2012)

Increased trace metal concentrations in feathers from migratory birds are regularly used in ecotoxicology (the study of the effects of toxic chemicals on biological organisms) as indicators of individual, population and environmental health. For most routine sampling and analysis, usually only parts of feathers are sampled.

However such sampling procedures have major short-comings because they ignore variations in feather development and how the contaminant enters the bird’s cells during feather growth. In order to gain a better understanding of contaminant distribution along the full length of a feather, ANSTO used the X-ray fluorescent microprobe at the Australian Synchrotron to obtain high resolution elemental images of breast feathers collected from chicks of Flesh-footed Shearwater (Puffinus carneipes) also known locally as Mutton Birds.

The study revealed, with exceptional clarity, previously unknown distribution patterns of trace metals necessary for healthy development as well as showing how the birds absorb metals that come from major pollutants such as micro-plastics, disintegrating plastic waste that is increasingly affecting a wide range of marine animals including seabirds.