US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Ecotoxicology (2009) 18:773–783


U.S. Government Work


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 longrange

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.