Effects of harmful algal blooms on stress levels and immune functioning in wetland-associated songbirds and reptiles

Sci Total Environ. 2021 Sep 20:788:147790. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.147790. Epub 2021 May 15.


Harmful algal blooms (HABs), caused primarily by nutrient input from agricultural runoff, are a threat to freshwater systems worldwide, and are further predicted to increase in size, frequency, and intensity due to climate change. HABs occur annually in the Western Basin of Lake Erie (Ohio, USA), and these blooms become toxic when dominated by cyanobacteria that produce the liver toxin microcystin. Although we are making substantial inroads toward understanding how microcystin affects human health, less is known about effects of microcystin on wildlife exposed to HABs. Wetland-associated songbirds (barn swallows, Hirundo rustica, and red-winged blackbirds, Agelaius phoeniceus) and reptiles (Northern watersnakes, Nerodia sipedon, and painted turtles, Chrysemys picta) were sampled from wetlands exposed to chronically high microcystin levels due to a prolonged HAB event, and from unexposed, control wetlands. Physiological stress levels and several measures of immune functioning were compared between the HAB-exposed and control populations. Physiological stress levels, measured as heterophil:lymphocyte ratios, were higher in barn swallows, red-winged blackbirds, and Northern watersnakes exposed to a chronic HAB compared to unexposed, control individuals, but painted turtles did not differ in physiological stress levels between HAB-exposed and control individuals. Neither barn swallows nor red-winged blackbirds differed in immune functioning between populations, but HAB-exposed watersnakes had higher bactericidal capacity than control snakes, and HAB-exposed painted turtles had lower bactericidal capacity than control turtles. These results suggest that even when HABs do not cause direct mortality of exposed wildlife, they can potentially act as a physiological stressor across several taxa, and furthermore may compromise immune functioning in some species.

Keywords: Bactericidal capacity; Heterophil:lymphocyte ratio; Microcystin; Natural antibody agglutination; Phytohemagglutinin challenge.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Harmful Algal Bloom
  • Ohio
  • Songbirds*
  • Turtles*
  • Wetlands