Biologist explores mysteries of large mammals

Terrie Williams, UC Santa Cruz large mammal researcher (contributed photo).
Terrie Williams, UC Santa Cruz large mammal researcher (contributed photo).

SANTA CRUZ—In the highly specialized niche of large mammal physiology, researcher Terrie Williams is immersed in questions about the navigational skills of Weddell seals, the caloric needs of the African lion and heart arrhythmias in bottlenose dolphins.

The UC-Santa Cruz professor has been known to strap heart monitors on big wave surfers as they rode the tumultuous swells of Maverick’s just north of Santa Cruz—all to better understand the complexities of health, longevity and the interconnectedness of a fragile ecosystem.

“It is, without a doubt, the most rewarding and most fun that anybody could have in their life,” Williams says. “I feel privileged every time I get to go out in the field.”

Her subjects include bears, elephants and killer whales. It’s the biology of big, she says. When she is at her home base at UCSC’s Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, Williams, 61, teaches ecology and evolutionary biology. She came to UCSC 23 years ago and mentors graduate and doctoral students working on projects all over the world.

“Every single species that I’ve worked on, I’m in awe of,” she says. “I keep telling kids, ‘Take my job. Do what I do and you’ll have the best life ever and you’ll make a difference in the world.’”

Recently back from an annual 10-week expedition in the Antarctic to study how Weddell seals can dive 500 meters, “muck around awhile” and, in a perfectly straight trajectory, surface at a three-inch breathing hole in the ice. If she can prove they use the earth’s magnetic signals, it will be another first.

“If we pull this off, it’s going to be amazing,” she says. “It’s going to change how we think about how mammals migrate.”

Understanding how animals are built and what they need in their environment could reduce conflict between humans and large animals. Williams links Yellowstone wolves to the health of the forest because they eat the herbivores and the health of the kelp forest to sea otters that eat the kelp-eating urchins. Perhaps, she says, we can find solutions that support a sustainable coexistence.

“It’s extremely important to understand the nature of apex predators and how they hold ecosystems together.”

In The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal and a Marine Biologist’s Fight to Save a Species, Williams wrote about her relationship with an orphaned newborn Hawaiian monk seal that she studied at UCSC. The book, which is curriculum in some schools, received the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru Prize for Excellence.

Williams has received numerous commendations including being listed as one of Discover magazine’s Top 50 Women Scientists in the Country and receiving the 2007 Women of Discovery Awards from Wings WorldQuest, which recognizes contributions of pioneering women. She is, however, particularly pleased to note that there is a small, rocky bluff near her research center on Ross Island, Antarctica named Terrie Bluff. Pilots use it to navigate, she says.

A triathlete, she lives in Santa Cruz with her best running partners, a Siberian husky and a Labradoodle.


This article was published in Santa Cruz Woman, a quarterly supplement of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.


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