Hannah Watson

Researcher

Research

My research interests lie at the interface between ecology, physiology and evolutionary ecology. I am interested in the mechanisms underlying physiological and behavioural responses to environmental stressors and the potential consequences for individual performance and fitness. I combine experimental and comparative approaches, primarily in field studies of wild birds, combined with lab measurements of physiological (e.g. hormones, oxidative stress) and molecular (e.g. telomeres, gene expression) traits. I also use 'omics approaches to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying phenotypic responses. 

Life-history ecology of tawny owls

Collaborator: Johan Nilsson (LU)

Using nestbox-breeding populations of tawny owls, we are investigating various questions related to movement and foraging ecology, ecotoxicology, and life-history strategies. The tawny owl is a long-lived top avian predator that occurs in both human-modified and natural landscapes. Tawny owls are thus potentially vulnerable to anthropogenic influences associated with habitat loss and modification, noise and light disturbance and exposure to rodenticide poisons. Current research efforts are focussed on combining tracking data with studies of diet and sub-lethal effects of rodenticides. Read more on our project page here.

MHC diversity in birds

Collaborators: Helena Westerdahl, Anna Drews

Our aim is to understand the mechanisms maintaining genetic diversity in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) in natural populations of birds. MHC molecules are key components of the vertebrate immune system, allowing detection of foreign peptides and subsequent activation of the immune system to eliminate the pathogen. In vertebrates, MHC genes are among the most diverse genes within the genome, and this high diversity is likely maintained by selection from pathogens. Using comparative and experimental approaches, we are exploring patterns of spatial and temporal variation in MHC diversity and associations with malaria infection.

Thermoregulatory strategies of birds

Collaborators: Johan Nilsson (LU), Jan-Åke Nilsson (LU) and Juli Broggi (Donana, Spain)

Birds are endotherms, meaning they can generate heat endogenously to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. However, endothermy is costly, requiring high energy input, and even more so during energetically challenging periods, such as the northern winter. Small birds regularly employ nocturnal hypothermia to reduce energetic demands during winter at high latitudes. We study the relative costs and benefits of nocturnal hypothermia and how ambient temperature and food supply influence thermoregulatory strategies. Over several winters, we have carried out a large-scale experimental manipulation of food supply in the wild to investigate the consequences for thermoregulation and metabolic rate in great tits.

Developmental stress, performance and survival

Collaborators: Caroline Isaksson (LU), Pat Monaghan (University of Glasgow) and Pablo Salmón (University of Glasgow)

It is well understood that the environment experienced during development shapes the phenotype and can have long-term effects on fitness. Oxidative stress and telomere dynamics potentially play key roles in mediating effects of early-life stress exposure and have been posited to underlie life-history trade-offs. Through studies of wild populations of birds, we have shown how adverse environmental conditions during postnatal development accelerate telomere attrition and that short telomeres are associated with reduced survival in both a short-lived (great tit/talgoxe) and long-lived (storm petrel/stormsvala) bird species. Most recently, we have demonstrated experimentally how maternally derived yolk antioxidants protect the developing avian embryo from elevated oxidative stress during prenatal development, but this may come at a cost to normal postnatal development. I am especially interested in the potential for epigenetics - specifically DNA methylation - to mediate environmentally induced phenotypic changes during early life.

Avian urban ecology

Collaborators: Caroline Isaksson (LU), Jan-Åke Nilsson (LU) & Pablo Salmón (University of Glasgow)

While the urban environment may provide birds with a high abundance of food year-round and milder winter climates, cities also present challenges arising from exposure to light, noise and air pollution, and poor nutritional value of food. Using comparative and experimental approaches, we seek to understand the effects of exposure to urban environmental stress on physiology and behaviour. Our primary study species is the great tit Parus major, which is common throughout Europe and occurs in both urban and rural habitats. My research cuts across multiple levels of biological organisation, to understand how epigenetics, gene expression and genome stability (e.g. telomere dynamics) contribute to mediating environmental effects, such as those exacted by urban stressors, on the phenotype. Currently, we are focusing on the effects of an urban diet for immune function and metabolism.

Career and education

2017-present Researcher, Lund University, Sweden

2015-17 Postdoctoral Fellow, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Fellowship, Lund University, Sweden

2014 PhD, University of Glasgow, UK (Supervisors: Pat Monaghan & Mark Bolton)

2008 MSc, University of Bangor, UK (Supervisors: Jan Hiddink & Mike Tetley)

2005-07 Conservation Policy Officer, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, UK

2004 BSc, University of East Anglia, UK (Supervisor: Isabelle Cote)

Recent research outputs

Hannah Watson, Pat Monaghan, Britt J Heidinger & Mark Bolton, 2021 Jul 8, In: Conservation Physiology. 9, 1, 10 p., coab052.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Ann-Kathrin Ziegler, Hannah Watson, Arne Hegemann, Richard Meitern, Virginie Canoine, Jan-Åke Nilsson & Caroline Isaksson, 2021 May 14, In: Journal of Experimental Biology. 224, 10, 10 p., 239350.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Hannah Watson, Daniel Powell, Pablo Salmón, Arne Jacobs & Caroline Isaksson, 2021, In: Evolutionary Applications. 14, 1, p. 85-98

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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