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Hannah Watson

Researcher | PhD

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 exposure to environmental stressors and the potential consequences for individual fitness. It is well understood that the environment shapes the developing phenotype and can have long-term effects on fitness. I am particularly interested in how early-life conditions shape the trade-offs that underlie life-history strategies and the mechanisms linking early-life stress with later-life fitness effects.

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. 

Visit our project webpages on avian nutrition and urbanisation for more information.

Female great tit incubating eggs in a nestbox
Great tits offer a suitable study system for investigating effects of exposure to urban stressors

Thermoregulatory strategies of birds

Collaborators: Jan-Åke Nilsson (LU) and Johan Nilsson (LU)

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. Since the winter of 2015-16, we have been carrying out a large-scale experiment, where we have manipulated food supply in the wild and we are investigating the consequences for thermoregulation and metabolic rate in great tits. This is part of a wider research programme on thermoregulation in birds here at Lund.

Great tits enter hypothermia to conserve energy during the long northern winter nights
Body temperature profile of a roosting great tit, recorded by a PIT tag implanted subcutaneously

Developmental stress, performance and survival

Collaborators: Caroline Isaksson (LU), Johan Nilsson (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.

In conjunction with Johan Nilsson, we are starting to investigate similar questions relating to life-history strategies in a top predator and long-lived species – the tawny owl Strix aluco; see our project web page for further details and our recent media coverage in the national newspaper, Sydsvenskan.

A young tawny owl is ringed to allow individual identification
Johan Nilsson ringing an owlet so we can follow recruitment and survival

Career and education

2017-present Postdoctoral Fellow, Formas (Swedish Research Council) grant with Caroline Isaksson and Jan-Åke Nilsson, Lund University, Sweden

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

2014 PhD, University of Glasgow, UK

2008 MSc, University of Bangor, UK

2004 BSc, University of East Anglia, UK


Retrieved from Lund University's publications database



Retrieved from Lund University's publications database


Retrieved from Lund University's publications database

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