Exploring causative and modifying factors of metal mine effluent toxicity using short-term multi-trophic artificial stream systems
Metal mines release treated effluents that contain a variety of metals, metalloids, and organics into the aquatic environment. A number of metal mine effluents (MMEs) have been found to contribute to adverse effects in fish and benthic invertebrates, such as decreased diversity and density, however the specific causal factors of toxic responses during chronic exposures to the MMEs are often unknown. Therefore, the overall objective of this dissertation was to explore causative and modifying factors of MME toxicity to a resident fish species, the fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas), during chronic, multi-trophic exposures. The representative MME used in this study was the process water effluent (PWE) of a Canadian metal mine, which is released into Junction Creek in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Chronic exposure to the MME has been a source of decreased reproductive output in fathead minnows in several previous studies, however, these same studies were not able to determine the potential causal factors of the reproductive impairment. In order to address the overall objective, several laboratory mesocosm studies were conducted, which consisted of three separate components. The first component included exploring several metals (Cu, Ni, and Se; alone and in mixture) that are consistently present in the MME and are known to cause toxicity at fairly low concentrations as potential causes for decreased egg production in fathead minnows. The second component included evaluating the role of decreased food availability (a possible indirect effect of MME in the receiving environment) as a potential cause of decreased egg production in fathead minnows. The third and final component included examining the role of water chemistry [(increased alkalinity and dissolved organic carbon (DOC)] as potential modifying factors of chronic MME toxicity to fathead minnows. In general, my results suggest that the metals present in the MME likely do not contribute directly to decreased reproductive performance in fathead minnows during chronic exposures, under the conditions examined. Instead, the MME appears to decrease food availability, therefore indirectly influence fathead minnow egg production. Furthermore, water chemistry modifications tested in this thesis were not able to entirely mitigate the reproductive effects in fish induced by the MME, although they did improve egg production relative to unmodified MME. Metal concentrations in fish tissues were not influenced by increases to alkalinity or DOC level in the exposure water, suggesting that bioavailability of metals during chronic exposure to metal-mixtures cannot be fully explained based on our understanding of metal complexation with abiotic ligands (inorganic and organic) during single metal or acute exposures. From a regulatory perspective, water chemistry modifications may somewhat improve fathead minnow reproductive performance during chronic exposure to the MME, however the MME would still not be entirely free of effects relative to the uncontaminated water. Future studies should focus on understanding the factors responsible for decreased food availability in MME-impacted aquatic ecosystems, and further explore potential approaches for ameliorating effluent quality.
fathead minnow, egg production, metal mine effluent, metal toxicity, metal bioavailability, direct effects, indirect effects
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)