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Research finds Great Salt Lake spiders loaded with mercury

Westminster project seeks to track movement of toxin from fly to spider to fowl.

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Westminster biology professor Christine Stracey hopes to determine which birds eat the spiders. This spring, she and her students will study western meadowlark, redwing blackbirds, cowbirds and other land-dwelling birds on Antelope Island. After catching them in nets, they will draw blood samples and attach uniquely patterned bands to their legs so they can be identified by sight. The team will compile winter survival rates, determine whether a male and female pair stay together, and track birds’ movement between Antelope Island and the mainland.

In a related study, Westminster students are helping discover how mercury in the lake becomes methylated. Scientists believe microorganisms that thrive in anaerobic conditions combine elemental mercury with a hydrocarbon molecule, but no one knows which Great Salt Lake bacteria are responsible, although Baxter has some suspects in mind.

At a glance

Mercury and the Great Salt Lake

Metal smelting has left a toxic legacy of mercury contamination in the Great Salt Lake, but not much is known about how this substance moves through the ecosystem. Armed with a new grant, Westminster College is conducting research that may shed light on how mercury moves up the food chain. One project is quantifying the levels of mercury accumulating in spiders that dine on the lake’s brine flies.

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Her student Tom Stevens isolates microbial species recovered from lakebed samples, kept in canning jars in a lab fridge. This group hopes to sequences these organisms’ DNA and culture them in the lab. Collaborators at Rutgers University will then observe how these isolated microbes interact with mercury.


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