Interview with Dr. Tony Williams

Professor, Department of Biological Sciences

Ecological, Evolutionary Physiology

Dr. Williams is passionate about integrating physiology with evolutionary biology to understand the mechanisms behind reproductive traits in birds.  His research program involves applied and basic science projects that continue to demonstrate how a physiological approach can answer longstanding questions in evolutionary biology.

What motivated you to dedicate your research to avian species?
I've always been fascinated by animals. I knew I wanted to be a biology professor but as a student, I had no idea what that really meant. For my Ph.D., I thought I wanted to work on mammals – in particular, badgers or foxes – but ended up volunteering with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; from then on, my CV had a “bird stamp” to it and the rest is history.

Birds are an awesome group of animals to work on: a) they are mainly diurnal, which is ideal for fieldwork, b) members of the general public love them so there's lots of funding available, and c) people have been studying them for a long time so there’s lots information available.

Starling nesting box at Langley, B.C. dairy farm

What basic science topics is your group researching right now?
I describe myself as an evolutionary physiologist because I bring those two fields together. A life history approach characterizes how other animals organize their lives; for example, how often they try to reproduce, how many eggs or offspring they produce, how much effort they put into parental care, how long they live. I'm interested in these reproductive ‘decisions’ that all animals have to make, in particular, the physiological mechanisms that underpin them. Most of the reproductive research on birds has been done on males. We are taking a female perspective; it's quite shocking how little is known about the aspects of female reproduction.

I also study variation among individuals in a single species.   We have a long-term field study of European starlings at a dairy farm in Langley, B.C., where we are looking at reproduction in relation to climate change and food availability, for example. We can also manipulate the birds’ physiology or how hard they work to see what kind of adjustments they make to their reproductive traits. We collect physiological data to understand the mechanisms behind these reproductive traits.

Banding a starling chick

How has your basic research improved our understanding of the mechanisms of female reproductive traits since your book on avian reproduction was published five years ago?
I spent the last five years trying to tackle some of the knowledge gaps identified in the book. For example, it is widely thought that male social behaviour might be a cue for female timing of breeding (i.e., male singing prompts the female to lay eggs), but that had not been tested experimentally. We created a party mix of the more complex ‘sexy’ songs and played them for the females during the breeding season. If the theory is correct, you would see earlier laying, but we didn't see evidence of that effect whatsoever.

We also looked at the unresolved question of clutch size, i.e., how many eggs do birds lay. There was a longstanding but untested hypothesis that clutch size involves a particular hormone, but a graduate student of mine showed experimentally that that idea was incorrect.

Recently, we've looked at parental care. Starling chicks are blind when they hatch and they cannot feed themselves; they need intensive parental care whereby the parents forage for food and bring it back to the chicks. The generally accepted idea is that if a parent brings back more food then they will produce better chicks, but our study showed this is not the case either.

These three areas are good examples of processes we thought we understood, but that actually don’t function the way we thought they did.

Dr. Williams and his trainees

What applied research topics is your group studying?
I have funding from Environment Canada for my applied research on conservation and management of bird populations. I've spent 20 years looking at bird toxicology, such as the effects of contaminants on reproduction. We respond to the priorities of Environment Canada – any declining species becomes a priority for Environment Canada – so when their scientists are concerned about a contaminant in a bird population we conduct a study to get a quick answer that then feeds back into legislation and protection.

In addition to species of concern, we also investigate the effects of specific contaminants of concern, such as atmospheric mercury and bitumen, on avian species.

How are you studying the effects of atmospheric mercury?
Atmospheric mercury is of growing concern. Previously, it was thought that mercury was released from industrial sources and unless you had a focused source, you didn't need to worry too much. Now, it's quite clear that mercury is getting picked up and broadcast widely in the atmosphere.

A few studies have shown high mercury levels, even in songbirds. We have a colony of zebra finches here at SFU that we are using to look for mercury-induced changes in early development (i.e. in embryos and chicks). We treat eggs with mercury and independently treat chicks with mercury and look at sublethal effects on reproduction and subsequent breeding performance when those chicks grow up.

Why and how do you study the effects of bitumen exposure?
If we start shipping more dilute bitumen in tankers and pipelines there could be a spill. Amazingly, there is little information on the effects of diluted bitumen as opposed to crude oil, and dilute bitumen has a very different chemical makeup than the oil. Can we translate all we've learned from crude oil to bitumen? It appears not.

My lab is conducting basic studies on the effect of diluted bitumen on bird reproduction. One approach we take is to collect background data. For instance, when the Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989, biologists reported diverse effects on birds; the problem was, they had no ‘before the spill’ data for comparison. We have a number of seabird colonies from which we collect eggs and then do genomics studies to get baseline information so that if the worst were to happen we will be in a much better position to demonstrate the effects with good comparative data.

What makes individual variation so critical in the physiology behind life history traits?
As Darwin pointed out, individual variation is the stuff of evolution. We need individual variation and it has to have a genetic basis for evolution to proceed; otherwise, there is no evolutionary change. Understanding individual variation is, therefore, fundamentally important.

There is a good reason to include physiology:  to say that something is important we have to understand the underlying mechanism that drives it. Individual variation at the physiological level is huge but still poorly understood.

What's your favorite bird?
Penguins. After completing my Ph.D. I got a job with the British Antarctic Survey. I went to South Georgia in the South Atlantic for two and a half years and worked primarily on penguins. I fell in love with penguins and to this day I still think they're awesome. In fact, my first book was about penguins. Recently, I've returned to this area of research. One of the things I love about biology is that you can get paid to go to some really cool places and study some really cool birds.

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 Read more: Dr. William’s profile on the Biological Sciences website, and links to the William’s Lab, the Centre for Wildlife Ecology and the Featured Researchers page

Interview by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos