In a recent analysis of data from
Essential Science IndicatorsSMfrom
Reuters, the work of Dr. Terrie Williams was
recognized as having the highest percent
increase in total citations in the field of Plant
& Animal Science for the period from December 2008
to February 2009. Currently, in this field, her
citation record includes 17 papers cited a total of 524
Dr. Williams is Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, as well
as the Principal Investigator of the Mammalian Physiology Lab, at the
University of California, Santa Cruz.
In this interview,
ScienceWatch.com talks with Dr.
Williams about her highly cited work.
Please tell us a bit about your educational
background and research experience—particularly what drew you to
your current field.
My education was initially in medicine. At Rutgers University I switched
from Human Physiology to Comparative Exercise Physiology for my Ph.D. when
I found that animals were capable of extraordinary feats of athleticism and
disease resistance—at least compared to the human animal. What I
found most fascinating was that wild mammals, including mink, cheetahs,
seals, and whales, accomplished these feats with the same mammalian tissue
building blocks as ourselves. Yet, how do dolphins cruise easily at speeds
that would earn an exhausted Michael Phelps a gold medal in the Olympics?
How do Weddell seals avoid hypoxic brain damage or shallow water blackout
when holding their breath for over an hour?
Not only do the answers to these questions allow us to predict the ability
of these animals to survive in a rapidly changing world, they direct us to
new avenues of research that will enable humans to live longer and perform
better. This is already beginning to happen. One example is the new swim
suits that enabled athletes to break so many speed records in the Beijing
Olympics: many of the hydrodynamic and anatomical features mimicked those
of dolphins. Imagine using 50,000 million years of waterproofing evolution
of marine mammals to prevent hypoxic injury due to stroke or
cerebrovascular insufficiency in humans. The solutions are there if only we
had a better understanding of the biology of the animals around us.
Based on your list of highly cited papers, you work
appears to focus on both the mechanics of diving in marine mammals as
well as energetics and predator-prey relationships. Would you say this
is a fair assessment?
The list of cited papers does seem somewhat eclectic. But the common theme
is "survival." We've taken the next step from Knut Schmidt-Nielsen's
question, "How do animals work?" to try to answer, "How do animals
survive?" The energetics of an animal is the bottom line: are there
sufficient resources in an environment and is the animal efficient enough
at obtaining those resources that it will have enough energy to maintain
its biological functions? Knowing energetic costs, because it is the common
currency, enables us to inter-connect the physiological limitations of a
wild species with the ecosystem in which it lives.
Today more than ever, it is important to understand this connection; these
papers try to address that. Understanding the physiological limitations of
a species gives us great predictive power for assessing the impacts of
global warming. Unfortunately, our knowledge of even the basic
physiological attributes of most wild mammals is poor. In view of this, the
fact that over 25% of mammals are threatened with extinction, according to
the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is not
One of your most-cited papers has to do with diving: the
2000 Science paper, "Sink or swim: Strategies for
cost-efficient diving by marine mammals" (Williams TM, et
al., 288: 133-6, 7 April 2000). Would you talk a bit about
this study—what you set out to find, what the results were, and
why the paper is significant?
This was one of those science "Ah HA!" moments. My colleagues and I had
been placing miniaturized video cameras on marine mammals to monitor their
underwater behavior. I was interested in observing how the animals swam, so
I convinced the team to deploy one of the cameras backwards, facing the
tail. When we got the tapes back, we saw long periods of simply nothing.
The flippers of the seals weren't moving for minutes at a time—it
could have been a still photograph.
By pairing the video with the dive recorder data I realized that the
animals were actually dropping like rocks through the water column, they
were gliding instead of stroking. Suddenly, we understood a major trick
that marine mammals use to conserve oxygen when they dove. We repeated this
on Weddell seals in the Antarctic, elephant seals in California, bottlenose
dolphins in Hawaii, and blue whales in the Pacific Ocean.
The blue whale video was especially interesting. On first pass it appeared
that nothing was recorded in terms of their swimming movements. Then it
occurred to me that perhaps the problem was the opposite as that for
assessing hummingbird wing movements. Instead of slowing down the video as
scientists do for hummingbird studies, I sped up the blue whale video. Now
what we couldn't see with the naked eye was apparent on the fast playback,
and we were able to detail the swimming and gliding patterns of the biggest
animal on earth.
Another of your highly cited papers is the 2003
PNAS paper "Sequential megafaunal collapse in the North
Pacific Ocean: An ongoing legacy of industrial whaling?" (Springer AM,
et al., 100: 12223-8, 14 October 2003). More recently,
you published a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society
B-Biological Sciences, "Running, swimming, and diving modifies
neuroprotecting globins in the mammalian brain" (Williams TM, et
al., 275: 751-8, 7 April 2008). Would you tell our readers
a little about these papers?
Both of these citations are "idea" papers, and took arduous paths to
publication. Rather than limiting the scientific discussion to a simple
reiteration of the results, the papers risk including a discussion of the
implications of the research.
In the case of the PNAS paper, we cast the results in a historical
context to ask the question, could industrial whaling from the 1950s have
instigated a series of dramatic marine mammal population declines that is
reverberating today in the North Pacific Ocean? A combination of energetic
and ecological modeling based on the simple idea that animals have to eat
regardless of whether you observe the predation events or not makes the
scenario likely. Yet, it is impossible to prove; hence the paper and the
ideas remain controversial.
"Miniature cameras and tiny
deployable accelerometers have allowed us to
travel with seals below the Antarctic sea
ice, follow lions on a hunt across the
African savannah, and dive with dolphins to
Likewise, the Proceedings of the Royal Society paper moves beyond
a simple comparison of globins in the cerebral cortex of wild mammals, and
discusses the implications for human medicine. Moving beyond the rat,
mouse, fly model is exceedingly difficult for this field, and the paper has
taken its knocks. Ultimately, the paper simply says that marine mammals
have figured out how to preserve brain function under extreme conditions of
oxygen deprivation—in some species, like the bowhead whale, for
lifespans of over 200 years. What if we were able to use the same types of
mechanisms to prevent neural damage in victims of drowning or advanced age?
How have technological advances helped the progress of
research in your field?
Miniature cameras and tiny deployable accelerometers have allowed us to
travel with seals below the Antarctic sea ice, follow lions on a hunt
across the African savannah, and dive with dolphins to remarkable depths.
This ability to finally observe cryptic wild animals has provided
remarkable insight on the challenges to survival for a wide variety of
species. We are now pairing that physiological/behavioral information with
functional genomics in which we will connect the genetic underpinnings with
an animal's capabilities. It is definitely an exciting time for science.
What would you say is the most challenging aspects of
your work? The most rewarding?
The most challenging aspect of this work is simply funding to support both
the research and the students interested in becoming physiologists.
Organismal biology in general and comparative physiology in particular have
taken a back seat over the past decade to advances at the molecular level.
With limited funding resources available to all scientists this has meant a
severe shortage for research at the whole animal or organ function level. I
feel that this has been to the detriment of wild animals—and as
mentioned above—the IUCN red list of endangered species reflects
this. When was the last you saw a published paper concerning the physiology
or energetics of a wild African lion, red wolf, elephant, leopard, killer
whale, or dolphin? Many of these large mammals are disappearing in our
The rewarding aspect of this work is that there is an enormous potential to
make a difference through science. To that end my colleagues and I have
embarked on a new project at UC Santa Cruz. The vision is to build a new
comparative biology research complex, the Center for Adaptive Physiology
and Genomics, where we will link these two disciplines to explore the path
from genes to enhanced physiological capabilities to human and animal
health. This complex is designed to be a national resource for marine
animal studies and genomic exploration that serves both resident and
visiting investigators, a place where scientists can use their imagination
to ensure the survival of all species, including themselves.
Terrie M. Williams, Ph.D.
Mammalian Physiology Lab
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA, USA
Springer AM, et al., "Sequential megafaunal
collapse in the North Pacific Ocean: An ongoing legacy of
industrial whaling?" Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA
100(21): 12223-8, 14 October 2003. Source:
Essential Science Indicators from