I am interested in predator-prey interactions and chemical ecology. Natural selection can be particularly powerful in these life-or-death struggles and I am fascinated by the myriad venoms and poisons that organisms produce and the corresponding physiological and behavioral counter-adaptations to this wicked weaponry.
To address these broader interests, I study blue-ring octopuses, which flash their bright blue iridescent markings to warn potential predators of their poisonous and venomous nature. I also study the poisonous Rough-skinned Newts (common on the West Coast of the US) and its toxin-resistant garter snake predators. Why?
Both the salamander and the octopus posses the deadly neurotoxin tetrodotoxin (TTX), as do many other distantly related creatures, such as pufferfish, some chaetognaths, several molluscs, and some nudibranchs, among many others. Because TTX is a complicated molecule and likely requires a complicated biosynthesis, it is unlikely each of these animals evolutionarily converged upon endogenous TTX production. However, evolving resistance to TTX requires just one or a few changes in the amino acid sequence of the sodium channels where TTX binds and causes toxicity. Thus, many hypothesize that TTX in these organisms is not produced endogenously, but is instead produced by symbiotic bacteria or accumulated from the diet. These networks of predators, prey, and potential symbionts brought me from terrestrial herpetology to the big leap into marine biology and finally to the enthralling world of microbial ecology. Who knows where they will lead next!
Williams, B. L., Stark, M. R., and R. L. Caldwell. 2012. Microdistribution of tetrodotoxin in two species of Blue-ringed octopuses (Hapalochlaena lunulata and Hapalochlaena fasciata) detected by fluorescent immunolabeling. Toxicon 60:1307-1313.
Stokes, A. N., Williams, B. L., and S. S. French. 2012. An improved competitive inhibition enzymatic immunoassay method for tetrodotoxin quantification. Biological Procedures Online 14:3.
Williams, B. L., Hanifin, C. T., Brodie, E. D., Jr., and E. D. Brodie III. 2012. Predators usurp prey defenses?: toxicokinetics of tetrodotoxin (TTX) in common garter snakes after consumption of rough-skinned newts. Chemoecology 22(3):179-185.
Williams, B. L., Lovenburg, V.*, Huffard, C. L., and R. L. Caldwell. 2011. Chemical defense in pelagic octopus paralarvae: Tetrodotoxin alone does not protect individual paralarvae of the greater blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) from common reef predators. Chemoecology 21:131–141.
Williams, B. L., Hanifin, C. T.,Brodie, E. D., Jr., and R. L. Caldwell. 2011. Ontogeny of tetrodotoxin levels in blue-ringed octopuses: Maternal investment and apparent independent production in offspring of Hapalochlaena lunulata. Journal of Chemical Ecology 37:10–17.
Williams, B. L., Hanifin, C. T.,Brodie, E. D., Jr., and E. D. Brodie III. 2010. Tetrodotoxin (TTX) affects survival probability of rough skinned newts (Taricha granulosa) faced with TTX-resistant garter snake predators (Thamnophis sirtalis). Chemoecology 20:285–290.
Williams, B. L. 2010. Behavioral and chemical ecology of marine organisms with respect to tetrodotoxin. Marine Drugs 8(3):381–398.
Williams, B. L., and R. L. Caldwell. 2009. Intraorganismal distribution of tetrodotoxin in two species of blue-ringed octopuses (Hapalochlaena fasciata and H. lunulata). Toxicon 54(3):345–353.
Brodie, E. D., III, Feldman, C. R., Hanifin, C. T., Motychak, J. E., Mulcahy, D. G., Williams, B. L., and E. D. Brodie, Jr. 2005. Evolutionary response of predators to dangerous prey: parallel arms races between garter snakes and newts involving tetrodotoxin as the phenotypic interface of coevolution. Journal of Chemical Ecology 31(2):343–355.
Mendelson III, J. R., Williams, B. L., Sheil, C. A., and D. G. Mulcahy. 2005. Systematics of the Bufo coccifer complex (Anura: Bufonidae) of Mesoamerica. Scientific Papers of the Natural History Museum of the University of Kansas 38:1–27.
Williams, B. L., Brodie, E. D., Jr., and E. D. Brodie III. 2004. A resistant predator and its toxic prey: persistence of newt toxin leads to poisonous (not venomous) snakes. Journal of Chemical Ecology 30(10):1901–1919.
Williams, B. L., Brodie, E. D., Jr., and E. D. Brodie III. 2003. Coevolution of deadly toxins and predator resistance: Self-assessment of resistance by garter snakes leads to behavioral rejection of toxic newt prey. Herpetologica 59(2):155–163.
Mulcahy, D. G., Cummer, M. R., Mendelson III, J. R., Williams, B. L., and P. C. Ustach. 2002. Status of two bufonid frogs and evaluation of their distributional records in the Northeastern Bonneville Basin with a new county record in Idaho. Herpetological Review 33(4):287–289.
Williams, B. L., Brodie, E. D., Jr., and E. D. Brodie III. 2002. Comparisons between toxic effects of tetrodotoxin administered orally and by intraperitoneal injection to the garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis. Journal of Herpetology 36(1):112–115.
Williams, B. L. 2009. Distribution of tetrodotoxin in blue-ringed octopuses and the hunt for tetrodotoxin-producing symbiotic bacteria. The Malacologist X:13.
Setser, K., Mulcahy, D. G., and B. L. Williams. 2003. Lampropeltis triangulum (Milk Snake) Habitat. Herpetological Review 34(2):150.