History of wildlife toxicology


The field of wildlife toxicology can be traced to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Initial reports included unintentional poisoning of birds from ingestion of spent lead shot and predator control agents, alkali poisoning of waterbirds, and die-offs from maritime oil spills. With the advent of synthetic pesticides in the 1930s and 1940s, effects of DDT and other pesticides were investigated in free-ranging and captive wildlife. In response to research findings in the US and UK, and the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, public debate on the hazards of pollutants arose and national contaminant monitoring programs were initiated. 

Shortly thereafter, population-level effects of DDT on raptorial and fish-eating birds were documented, and effects on other species (e.g., bats) were suspected. Realization of the global nature of organochlorine pesticide contamination, and the discovery of PCBs in environmental samples, launched long-range studies in birds and mammals. With the birth of ecotoxicology in 1969 and the establishment of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in 1979, an international infrastructure began to emerge. In the 1980s, heavy metal pollution related to mining and smelting, agrichemical practices and non-target effects, selenium toxicosis, and disasters such as Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez dominated the field.

Biomarker development, endocrine disruption, population modeling, and studies with amphibians and reptiles were major issues of the 1990s. With the turn of the century, there was interest in new and emerging compounds (pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, surfactants), and potential population-level effects of some compounds. Based upon its history, wildlife toxicology is driven by chemical use and misuse, ecological disasters, and pollution-related events affecting humans. Current challenges include the need to more thoroughly estimate and predict exposure and effects of chemical-related anthropogenic activities on wildlife and their supporting habitat.

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Lucy Morgan
Editorial Coordinator
Journal of Ecology and Toxicology
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