Metals and trace elements in feathers: A geochemical approach to avoid misinterpretation of analytical responses

Sci Total Environ. 2016 Feb 15;544:476-94. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.11.115. Epub 2015 Dec 4.


Assessing trace metal pollution using feathers has long attracted the attention of ecotoxicologists as a cost-effective and non-invasive biomonitoring method. In order to interpret the concentrations in feathers considering the external contamination due to lithic residue particles, we adopted a novel geochemical approach. We analysed 58 element concentrations in feathers of wild Eurasian Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus fledglings, from 4 colonies in Western Europe (Spain, France, Sardinia, and North-eastern Italy) and one group of adults from zoo. In addition, 53 elements were assessed in soil collected close to the nesting islets. This enabled to compare a wide selection of metals among the colonies, highlighting environmental anomalies and tackling possible causes of misinterpretation of feather results. Most trace elements in feathers (Al, Ce, Co, Cs, Fe, Ga, Li, Mn, Nb, Pb, Rb, Ti, V, Zr, and REEs) were of external origin. Some elements could be constitutive (Cu, Zn) or significantly bioaccumulated (Hg, Se) in flamingos. For As, Cr, and to a lesser extent Pb, it seems that bioaccumulation potentially could be revealed by highly exposed birds, provided feathers are well cleaned. This comprehensive study provides a new dataset and confirms that Hg has been accumulated in feathers in all sites to some extent, with particular concern for the Sardinian colony, which should be studied further including Cr. The Spanish colony appears critical for As pollution and should be urgently investigated in depth. Feathers collected from North-eastern Italy were the hardest to clean, but our methods allowed biological interpretation of Cr and Pb. Our study highlights the importance of external contamination when analysing trace elements in feathers and advances methodological recommendations in order to reduce the presence of residual particles carrying elements of external origin. Geochemical data, when available, can represent a valuable tool for a correct interpretation of the analytical results.

Keywords: Contaminants; External contamination; Feathers; Greater flamingo; Waterbirds; Wetland pollution.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis*
  • Feathers / chemistry*
  • France
  • Italy
  • Metals, Heavy / analysis*
  • Spain
  • Trace Elements / analysis*


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Metals, Heavy
  • Trace Elements