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Chapter 44 - Selenium

Authors: J. Christian Franson.

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Selenium is a naturally occurring element that is present in some soils. Unlike mercury and lead, which also are natural environmental components, selenium is an essential nutrient in living systems. The amount of dietary selenium required by animals depends upon many factors, including the availability of certain other metals such as zinc and copper, as well as vitamin E and other nutrients. Muscle damage results if dietary selenium is deficient, but dietary excess can be toxic.

Species Affected

Selenium poisoning or toxicosis has been documented in many avian species as well as in mammals and humans. The vulnerability of animals to selenium poisoning is primarily associated with the use of heavily contaminated habitats. Plants and invertebrates in contaminated aquatic systems may accumulate selenium in concentrations that are toxic to birds that consume them. In an experimental study with mallard ducklings, it was demonstrated that exposure to selenium in contaminated food items enhanced the birds’ susceptibility to infectious diseases.

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The potential for selenium poisoning exists wherever bird habitat is created over sites with high soil concentrations of selenium and where point-source releases of selenium, for example from smelter emissions and sewage sludge, contaminate the environment.

Kesterson Reservoir in California is a classic example of bioaccumulation of selenium in wetlands created in an area with selenium-rich soils. The reservoir became a sump for wastewater return flows from irrigated soils that were rich in selenium. The continual addition of selenium-laden return wastewater leads to toxic concentrations of selenium in food items of birds. The result is reproductive failure caused by embryonic deformities and death, as well as mortality of adult birds.


The seasonality of selenium poisoning depends on when birds use habitats that have high selenium concentrations.

Field Signs

There are no unique clinical signs of selenium poisoning. The primary field indications that selenium poisoning may be occurring in an area are poor avian reproductive performance, embryonic deaths and deformities, and occasional mortality of adults.

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Gross Lesions

Deformities caused by selenium poisoning may include missing or abnormal body parts, especially wings, legs, eyes, and beaks, as well fluid accumulation in the skull (Fig. 44.1). Affected adults often are emaciated, but other gross lesions generally are absent.

Figure 44.1 Embryonic deformities may be seen in the offspring of birds exposed to high levels of selenium.
Click Photo for full-page view(A) A cleared and stained preparation of a coot embryo with fusion of the digits of both feet (arrow). Click Photo for full-page view(B) This mallard embryo has fluid accumulation over the back of the skull, and the mandible is only a remnant of normal (arrows).


Diagnosis of selenium poisoning is complicated by its biological interactions with other elements, particularly mercury. These two elements often lessen or prevent the toxicity of each other when both are present. The diagnosis of selenium poisoning depends upon a history of potential exposure; gross developmental defects; microscopic lesions, primarily evidence of chronic liver damage, that are consistent with selenium toxicosis; and selenium levels in tissues and environmental samples such as food items, water, and sediment. In birds found dead at Kesterson Reservoir, mean selenium concentrations in livers and kidneys were about 95 parts per million dry weight, which is about 10 times higher than levels found in birds from a control area.

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The construction of artificial wetlands that are likely to attract bird use in areas of selenium-rich soils should be carefully evaluated for the potential for bioaccumulation of selenium in food items. It is preferable not to create wetlands where toxic concentrations of selenium can be expected. For existing wetlands, control measures should be directed at providing sources of clean water and at preventing environmental contamination by selenium through carefully disposing of selenium-containing wastes, including irrigation drainwater and sewage. The use of scare devices and other methods to prevent birds from using heavily contaminated areas should be considered.

Human Health Considerations

The ingestion of high levels of selenium can result in poisoning in humans. One should wear gloves when handling carcasses, but birds suspected of having died of selenium poisoning present no special hazard, because residues are biologically bound within tissues.

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Supplementary Reading

  • Eisler, R., 1985, Selenium hazards to fish, wildlife, and invertebrates:
    a synoptic review: Fish and Wildlife Service Biological
    Report 85(1.5), 57 p.
  • Heinz, G.H., 1996, Selenium in birds, in Beyer, W.N., and others,
    eds., Environmental contaminants in wildlife: interpreting
    tissue concentrations: Boca Raton, Fla., Lewis Publishers,
    p. 447–458.
  • Ohlendorf, H.M., and Hothem, R.L., 1995, Agricultural
    drainwater effects on wildlife in central California, in
    Hoffman, D.J., and others, eds., Handbook of ecotoxicology:
    Boca Raton, Fla., Lewis Publishers, p. 577–595.
  • Ohlendorf, H.M., 1996, Selenium, in Fairbrother, A., and others,
    eds., Noninfectious diseases of wildlife (2nd ed.): Ames, Iowa,
    Iowa State University Press, p. 128–140.

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