A study offers new insight into the threats from heavy metal pollution on tropical wildlife living within a fragmented landscape of remnant forests and oil palm plantations.
Wildlife species surviving large-scale lane-use changes face increased exposure to a suite of contaminants that may negatively impact on their health. Inorganic pollutants, such as heavy metals, already pose well-known threats to human and animal health.
The palm oil (Elaeis gunneensis) industry is a primary driver of tropical forest loss and fragmentation in some of the most biodiverse regions of the world, and likely poses a significant pollution threat to wildlife surviving the extensive landscape alterations caused by plantation establishment.
The Malay civet (Viverra tangalunga) is an adaptable small carnivore that represents a highly suitable indicator species for biomonitoring studies in southeast Asia. The species is high up in the food chain, increasing the likelihood of exposure and accumulation of metallic pollutants, and concentrates foraging along the edges of heavily degraded forests and oil palm plantations.
In a new study, published in Environmental Research, scientists measured heavy metal levels in hair samples from Malay civets captured across a patchwork landscape degraded by oil palm agriculture in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.1
The researchers collected hair from 71 wild Malay civets, fitting adult males with GPS collar to record their nocturnal movements and spatial behaviours. They analysed the levels of 13 essential and non–essential metals within digested hair samples using an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP–MS).
The team associated hair metal concentrations with age, weight, proximity to a tributary and access to oxbow lakes – and established evidence of possible water–facilitated exposure to select metals. They also found that animals that entered oil palm plantations had elevated aluminium, cadmium and lead, and lower mercury hair concentrations than those remaining exclusively within the forest – implicating plantations as a likely source of contamination.
The team used ultrapure water generated from an ELGA PURELAB® Flex 3 laboratory water purification system to minimise the risk of introducing contaminants that may affect their results.
Given both the current and projected global scale of the oil palm agriculture industry, there is an urgent need for quantitative research to inform land management strategies that can effectively mitigate the ecotoxicological threat to tropical wildlife.
This study provides timely evidence to justify the use of Malay civets as an indicator species to quantify inorganic pollution within landscapes fragmented by oil palm plantations, even though the exact metal sources cannot be directly determined from hair profiles. The approach will provide the substantive data that will be necessary for informing efficient pollution mitigation and enforcement strategies for the region.
To investigate the sources and distribution of metals, the authors strongly recommend the introduction of real–time monitoring programmes co–evaluating water quality and agricultural practices across the floodplain to address the ecotoxicological consequences of the oil palm industry.
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