Williams' Lab
Evolutionary and Ecological Physiology


Tony D Williams, 
Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, V5A1S6, Canada
E-mail: tdwillia@sfu.ca

Research interests | Current projects | Students/post-docs | Selected publications | All publications

Center for Wildlife Ecology: Applied physiology and ecotoxicology

New book: Physiological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds (2012)

Research interests

Physiological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds (2012 provides a critique of  the state of our knowledge of the “physiological mechanisms that regulate individual or phenotypic variation in reproductive life-history traits, trade-offs between these traits, and trade-offs and carry over effects between different life-history stages”. It develops two main themes: that avian reproductive physiology and ecology must be considered from a female perspective and that we need to focus on individual variation in the physiology underpinning life-history traits. I conclude that we have only a very rudimentary, and in some cases non-existent, understanding of the mechanisms underpinning those traits which population studies have shown are most closely related to individual variation in fitness:

        timing of breeding
        clutch size
        parental care

Heritable, individual variation is the raw material for evolution by natural selection, it is the critical level of analysis in many evolutionary studies, and it needs to become the key focus in physiological and endocrine analysis of life-history traits. Despite an increased interest in the integration of behavioural ecology, evolutionary biology, and physiology progress has been slow especially for avian reproduction. Physiological Adaptations argues strongly that we need a shift of focus in research on avian reproduction if we are to successfully integrate physiology and ecology, and it lays out a specific research agenda to achieve this.

Our work mainly focus on avian reproduction (though not exclusively!) and specifically early stages of reproduction (e.g. timing of breeding and egg formation) since the importance of this phase of breeding has been neglected and underestimated. Research primarily combines laboratory studies, using captive breeding zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), with studies of a free-living, nest-box breeding, population of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) which are ideal for experimental studies in the field. However, we have been involved in other projects on a wide range of species including Arctic-nesting ducks and geese, seabirds, penguins, albatrosses (and even blue tits).

Williams, T.D. 2012. Hormones, life-history, and phenotypic variation: opportunities in evolutionary avian endocrinology. Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 176: 286-295.
Williams, T.D. 2008. Individual variation in endocrine systems: moving beyond the “tyranny of the Golden Mean”. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B. 363: 1687-1698.
Williams, T.D. 2005. Mechanisms underlying costs of egg production. BioScience 55: 39-48.
Williams, T.D. & Vezina, F. 2001. Reproductive energy expenditure, intraspecific variation, and fitness. Current Ornithology 16: 355-405

Current projects

1. Timing of breeding, temperature and prey availability in European starlings
2. Physiological mechanisms for clutch size determination

3. Individual quality, workload and physiological mechanisms of parental care in European starlings

4. Hormonally-mediated maternal effects and telomere dynamics during early development (collaboration with Francois Criscuolo and Mathilde Tissier, University of Strasbourg, France)

5. Effects of climate change on Pygoscelis penguins: in the western Antarctic peninsula (collaboration with Bill Fraser, Polar Oceans Research Group, Montana, USA)

6. Breeding biology of  barn and tree swallows in relation to habitat (collaboration with Nancy Mahony, Environment Canada)

Long-term effects of early developmental exposure to xenobiotics (collaboration with John Elliott, Environment Canada)

8. Effects of mercury on growth, development and reproduction in birds
(collaboration with John Elliott, Environment Canada)

Current students/post-docs

Margaret Eng (Post-doc) - Long-term effects of early developmental exposure to xenobiotics
Allison Cornell (PhD) - Components of timing of breeding in Eureopean starlings webpage
Kristen Gorman (PhD) -  Effects of climate change on Pygoscelis penguins: nutritional, physiological, and genetic mechanisms
Olga Lansdorp (MSc) - Breeding biology of barn and tree swallows in relation to habitat
Jeff Yap (PhD) - Workload, metaboliic rate and aerobic capacity
Mitchell Serota (MSc) - Individual variation in foraging effort webpage
Maria Yu (MET) - Effect of mercury on development and reproduction in zebra finches
Spencer Morran (MET) - Effect of mercury on development and reproduction in zebra finches

Selected  publications

Tissier, M.L., Williams, T.D., & Criscuolo, F. 2014. Maternal effects underlie ageing costs of growth in the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). PLoS ONE 9: e97705

Ryan, C.P., Dawson, A., Sharp, P., Meddle, S.L. and Williams, T.D. 2014. Circulating breeding and pre-breeding prolactin and LH are not associated with clutch size in the Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata). Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 202: 26–34.

Gorman, K.B., Williams, T.D. & Fraser, W.R. 2014. Ecological Sexual Dimorphism and Environmental Variability within a Community of Antarctic Penguins (genus Pygoscelis). PLoS ONE 9: e90081

Love, O.P., Bourgeon, S., Madliger, C.L., Semeniuk, C.A.D. & Williams, T.D. 2014.  Evidence for baseline glucocorticoids as mediators of reproductive investment in a wild bird. Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 199: 65–69.

Crossin, G.T., Phillips, R.A., Wynne-Edwards, K. & Williams, T.D. 2013. Post-migratory body condition predicts ovarian steroid production and breeding decision in female gray-headed albatrosses. Physiol. Biochem. Zool. 86: 761-768

Crossin, G.T., Phillips, R.A., Lattin, C.R., Romero, M. & Williams, T.D. 2013. Corticosterone mediated costs of reproduction link current to future breeding. Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 193: 112–120.

Stein, R.W. & Williams, T.D. 2013. Extreme intraclutch egg-size dimorphism in Eudyptes penguins, an evolutionary response to clutch-size maladaptation. Amer. Nat. 182: 260-270.

Crespi, E.J., Williams, T.D., Jessop, T.S. & Delehanty, B. 2013. Life history and the ecology of stress: how do glucocorticoid hormones influence life-history variation in animals? Funct. Ecol. 27, 93–106.

Zanette, L.Y., Hobson, K.A., Clinchy, M., Travers, M. & Williams, T.D. 2013. Food use by songbirds is affected by the experience of nest predation: implications for indirect predator effects on clutch size. Oecologia  172:1031–1039 .

Crossin, G.T., Poisbleau, M., Demongin, L., Chastel, O, Williams, T.D., Eens, M. & Quillfeldt, P. 2012. Migratory constraints on yolk precursors limit yolk androgen deposition and underlie a brood reduction strategy in rockhopper penguins. Biol.                      Lett. 8: 1055-1058.

Crossin, G.T., Trathan, P.N., Phillips, R.A., Gorman, K.B., Dawson, A., Sakamoto, K.Q. & Williams, T.D. 2012. Corticosterone predicts foraging behavior and parental care in macaroni penguins. Amer. Nat. 180: E31-E41

Crossin, G.T., Phillips, R.A., Trathan, P.N., Fox, D.S., Dawson, A., Wynne-Edwards, K.E., &  Williams, T.D. 2012. Migratory carryover effects and endocrinological correlates of reproductive decisions and reproductive success in female albatrosses. Gen. Comp. Endocrino. 176:151–157.

Crossin, G.T., Dawson, A., Phillips, R.A., Trathan, P.N., Adlard, S., Gorman, K.B. & Williams, T.D. 2012. Seasonal patterns of prolactin and corticosterone secretion in an Antarctic seabird that molts during reproduction. Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 175: 74–81.

Vézina, F., Williams, T.D., Piersma, T. and  Morrison, R.G.I. 2012. Phenotypic compromises in a long-distance migrant during the transition from migration to reproduction in the High Arctic. Funct. Ecol. 26, 500–512.

Williams, T.D., Fronstin, R.B., Otomo, A., & Wagner, E.C. 2012. Validation of the use of phenylhydrazine hydrochloride (PHZ) for experimental manipulation of haematocrit and plasma haemoglobin in birds. Ibis 154: 21-29.

Applied physiology and ecotoxicology

The main aims of the Center for Wildlife Ecology's research in ecological physiology are three-fold: 1) to obtain a better understanding of the fundamental mechanisms underlying individual and population-level variation in physiological traits in order to provide a solid basis for predicting how animals might respond to environmental change, 2) to determine more meaningful intra-specific measures of body condition, quality and individual health for birds, and 3) to develop and apply new physiological approaches and techniques to conservation biology and ecotoxicology.  We approach these aims through a combination of studies on basic physiology, often using tractable model systems (e.g. zebra finches) as well as free-living birds (starlings, western sandpiper), coupled with more applied, and more specific, goal-orientated projects (e.g. addressing current ecotoxicological problems).  The following projects are on-going in the Williams' lab at present:
1. Plasma metabolites as indicators of physiological state, condition and habitat quality: a) Arrow Lakes Reservoir Neotropical Migrant use of the Drawdown Zone. This project uses physiological assessment of fattening rates and condition (plasma metabolites, corticosterone) to determine effects of reservoir water management strategies, on four species of neo-tropical migrants (Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Orange-Crowned Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler) in Revelstoke, BC; b) Altitudinal differences in fattening rates in neo-tropical migrants using high- and low-altitude sites in the Lower Mainland, BC. A paper on this collaborative study (with Kathy Martin, Lesley Evens Ogden) was published in The Auk in January 2013. Main results were that three frugivorous species (Fox Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Hermit Thrush) had 37% to 65% higher fattening rates at higher altitude sites. In contrast, the largely insectivorous Orange-crowned Warbler had higher fattening rates at low altitude sites. This study shows that high elevation sites can represent high quality stopover habitats for migrants, and thus should be given consideration for protection for songbird management and conservation. Moreover, these patterns were only evident using plasma metabolites analysis, not with more “traditional” analysis of body mass or fat score, highlighting the value of these physiological approaches.

2. Ecotoxicology projects: a) Anthropogenic maternal effects: long-term effects of early (in ovo or natal) exposure to xenobiotics in birds. We continue this long-term and highly productive collaboration with Dr. John Elliott, S & T, largely funded via non-CWE grants or agreements. Early life stages in birds are sensitive to environmental conditions, and factors such as hormones and pollutants can have long-term (permanent) effects on the resulting phenotypes at concentrations much lower than those required to affect adults. We have developed an integrated model system using lab-based studies of breeding zebra finches and field-based studies of European starlings. This combines various methods of exposure of embryos or chicks during early development (egg injection, exposure via maternal transfer, etc), assessment of long-term effects of contaminants when these chicks reach adulthood (mating and courtship behaviour, breeding success), and potential intergenerational effects on the offspring of birds exposed as chicks. More recently we have incorporated in vitro (cell-based and molecular) assays of potential endocrine disrupting effects before we start in vivo testing using physiological, neurobiological, behavioural and reproductive endpoints (with Dr. Tim Beischlag, Faculty of Health Sciences). We have now used this system to test to test a series of “priority” chemicals in collaboration with colleagues at NWRC, Ottawa (Drs. Fernie, Letcher, Kennedy), under EC’s Chemical Management Plan (CMP); b) Surveillance and monitoring of CMP priority compounds in key bio-indicator species.  In 2008 EC selected the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) as the “terrestrial” indicator species to monitor new contaminants in biota to provide early warning support to ongoing risk assessment (under the Chemical Management Plan). We continued to provide eggs, other samples, and breeding data, for this monitoring from our two main starling study sites.

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