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There remains great concern over mercury pollution in the Arctic, though relatively little is known about impacts on biota that inhabit Arctic terrestrial systems. To help address this, the current study was performed with barnacle goslings (Branta leucopsis) from a coal mine-impacted site and a control site near Ny-Alesund, Spitsbergen (Svalbard). The works focused mainly on mercury, as coal contains trace levels of this element. Total mercury concentrations were quantified in soil and vegetation from the two sites, as well as feces and liver from the goslings. Next, the mercury exposures were related to dopamine 2 (D2)- and NMDA-receptors in the brain, given that mercury is a proven neurotoxicant. Soil and vegetation in the mining area contained mercury levels that were approximately 3- and 2.2-times higher than in the control site. Despite a significant difference between the sites, the soil and vegetation mercury levels where were within ranges found at other Arctic locations. Goslings grazing in the mine-impacted area contained significantly higher hepatic mercury levels than those sampled from the control site. Compared to other species, the hepatic concentrations were relatively low possibly due to dilution of the mercury in growing goslings (growth dilution) and deposition of mercury in the growing feathers. Hepatic mercury concentrations were positively related to D2-neuroreceptor levels but not to NMDA-receptor levels thus suggesting a possible subtle neurological effect. To our knowledge, this is among the first studies on mercury exposure in Arctic terrestrial organisms, and one of the first to document potential subtle neurological responses associated with exposure to low, environmentally relevant mercury levels, which also can be found at other locations in the Arctic. However, as a pilot effort, the results here need to be examined in additional studies that include, for example, lager study designs, different geographic sites and other terrestrial species.
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