The protected old-growth forest in the Amazon of southeastern Peru appears pristine: Ancient trees with massive trunks grow alongside young, slender ones, forming a canopy so thick it sometimes feels to scientists like evening during the day.
But a new analysis of what’s inside the forest’s leaves and birds’ feathers tells a different story: The same canopy that supports some of the richest biodiversity on the planet is also sucking up alarming levels of toxic mercury, according to a study published on Friday.
The mercury is released into the air by miners searching for gold along nearby riverbanks. They use mercury to separate the precious metal from surrounding sediment and then burn it off. Carried in the air, particles catch on leaves like dust and are washed onto the forest floor by rain.
Other particles are sucked into the leaves’ tissue. From there, mercury appears to have transferred up the food web to songbirds, which showed levels of mercury two to 12 times as high as those in comparable areas farther from mining activity.
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