Honors Theses

Quantification of Persistent Organic Pollutants in Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus) Vibrissae: A Novel Approach

Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Type

Bachelors of Science

Degree Name



Halmos College of Arts and Sciences and the Guy Harvey Oceanographic Research Center

Honors College

Farquhar Honors College Thesis

Honors College Dean

Andrea Nevins

Home College Dean

Holly Lynn Baumgartner

Faculty Advisor

Dimitri Giarikos

Faculty Advisor

Amy C. Hirons


Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are characterized by their biologically accumulative nature, toxicity to organisms, and persistence in the environment. The physical and chemical properties of these “forever chemicals” enhance their capacity for global transport, and the ocean serves as their ultimate sink. The eastern Pacific stock of northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) on the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, represents over 50% of the global breeding population, but it has been experiencing a discontinuous decline since 1980. A proposed contributing factor to this decline is their exposure to anthropogenic contaminants. This study adapted a novel technique for analysis of POPs in keratinous tissue. A decadal comparison of 21 organochlorine contaminant (OC) and 39 polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) concentrations was conducted utilizing vibrissae (whiskers) from individuals sampled in 1993 (n=30) and 2013 (n=41) during subsistence harvests on the Pribilof Islands. PBDEs were found in concentrations one order of magnitude greater than OCs, which may be reflective of the current use versus legacy status of these contaminant classes, respectively. Mean concentrations in 1993 were comparable to 2013 for both OCs (266 and 294 ng/g) and PBDEs (1377 and 1521 ng/g), with slightly higher values in 2013, indicating their environmental persistence. The presence of POPs at concentrations within an order of magnitude of published values for other body tissues suggests there may be an adaptive advantage to offloading contaminants via this inert tissue. The quantification of all target analytes validates keratinous tissue as a viable biomarker for POP exposure and introduces the potential for less invasive sampling for future long-term monitoring efforts.

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