In order to assess the adaptation to metals previously observed in the bioindicator organism, Macoma balthica, subjected to chronic contamination by silver and mercury in the French Loire estuary, the bioaccumulation potential of individual organisms originating from the contaminated Loire estuary and a relatively uncontaminated control estuary (Somme) was evaluated using both radiotracers and stable isotopes of Ag (80 mu g Ag litre(-1)) and Hg (100 mu g Hg litre(-1)). Clams from the contaminated estuary were more sensitive to Ag (LT50 = 9 d) than those originating from the Somme estuary (LT50>15d), even though the former bioaccumulated Ag to a significantly lower degree. This is attributed to a consequence of the chronic stress induced by Ag while clams were living in their natural environment. Therefore, past history of trace metal contamination should be considered when evaluating the susceptibility of M. balthica to heavy metal exposure. Lower uptake rates obtained for Hg (during the initial uptake phase only) and for Ag in clams from the polluted estuary suggest the presence of an adaptive trait for survival in contaminated areas. However, the lower degree of bioconcentration observed for Ag was not sufficiently low to reduce the sensitivity of the organisms to Ag and allow them to resist the toxic stress. Clams that survived Ag or Hg exposure at LT50 did not protect themselves against metal toxicity by accumulating a significantly lesser amount of these metals than clams which did not survive metal stress. The results suggest that the bioaccumulation potential of each individual was not a factor which can explain the survival ability of M. balthica exposed to chronic Ag and Hg contamination in estuaries. In this case, cellular, biochemical and genetic levels of adaptation are presumed to be of greater importance. (C) 1998 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.