Gonadal feminization and halogenated environmental contaminants in common terns (Sterna hirundo): evidence that ovotestes in male embryos do not persist to the prefledgling stage. Academic Article uri icon


  • Common terns (Sterna hirundo) and roseate terns (Sterna dougallii) breed on Bird Island, Massachusetts, USA, near a Superfund site highly contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Observations of skewed sex ratios and female-female pairings among endangered roseate terns (Nisbet and Hatch (1999) Ibis 141, 307) suggested the possibility of contaminant-related endocrine disruption in these birds and prompted investigation of common terns as a surrogate species. In 1993 and 1994, 60-90% of pipping male common tern embryos sampled exhibited ovarian cortical tissue in their testes (ovotestes) (Nisbet et al. (1996) Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 57, 895; Hart et al. (1998) Mar. Environ. Res. 46, 174). To examine the possible impact of ovotestes on the reproductive capabilities of common terns, we examined gonadal histology in common tern prefledglings (approximately 21 days old) collected from Bird Island in 1995. As a measure of embryonic contaminant exposure, contaminants were measured in a subset of eggs collected from the same nests as the prefledglings. Concentrations of total PCBs in these eggs ranged from 14.4 to 546 microg/g lipid. No evidence of ovotesticular development was observed in any of the 19 male prefledglings examined. Some gonadal irregularities were observed, including small nodules of testicular tissue within the epithelial capsule of the testes, but these were judged not likely to affect testicular function. There was no relationship between any observed irregularities and levels of contaminants present in the matched eggs. The results suggest that the ovotestes that occur in 60-90% of pipping common tern embryos from this site become fully regressed by approximately 21 days posthatch. Our data from this and previous studies are consistent with the idea that ovotestes occur naturally in some individual common terns at hatching, although the frequency of occurrence may be enhanced by exposure to chlorinated organic contaminants such as PCBs. In either case, we suggest that the presence of ovotestes in common tern embryos from PCB-contaminated sites such as Bird Island does not lead to permanent alterations in gonadal histology that would be expected to impair reproductive function.

publication date

  • February 2003