Alonso-Alvarez, C., Munilla, I., López-Alonso, M. & Velando, A. Sublethal toxicity of the Prestige oil spill on yellow-legged gulls. Environment International 33, 773–781 (2007).
The Prestige oil spill in November 2002 is considered the biggest large-scale catastrophe of its type in Europe, thousands of seabirds dying in the subsequent months. Here, the total concentration of 16 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (TPAH) was measured in the blood cell fraction of adult and chick yellow-legged gulls (Larus michahellis) from unoiled and oiled coastal areas in North Western Spain. In addition, hematocrit, plasma metabolites, electrolytes and enzymes, as well as body mass were determined in the same individuals. Our results strongly suggest the presence of health damages of sublethal nature in adult gulls breeding in oiled colonies 17 months after the Prestige oil spill. This is supported by the following evidences: (1) gulls sampled in unoiled and oiled colonies differed in blood TPAH levels, (2) gulls sampled in unoiled and oiled colonies differed in several blood parameters indicative of physiological disorders, and (3) TPAH in blood was significantly related to several of these parameters. Differences in the level of asparatate aminotransferase (AST), gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT), total protein, glucose and inorganic phosphorus suggest damages on some vital organs (i.e. liver and kidney) in adult birds from oiled areas. Meanwhile, chicks presented weaker effects than adults, showing only between-area differences in hematocrit. Since TPAH levels in blood did not differ between both age groups, the stronger effects on adults should be due to their longer exposure to these pollutants and/or to severe exposure in the months following the spill. The presence of PAHs in chicks indicates that these pollutants were incorporated into the food chain because nestlings would have been only exposed to contaminated organisms in the diet (e.g. fishes and crustaceans). Our findings support the view that PAHs may deeply alter the physiology of seabirds, and emphasize the necessity of quantifying the circulating levels of these compounds in order to evaluate the sublethal effects associated to large oil spills.