The Effects of Timing and Duration of Mercury Exposure on Beak Redness in Zebra Finches


My name is Rebecca Gilson and I’m a rising senior here at William & Mary.  I’m a biology major with a history minor. I’m planning to apply to and attend Veterinary School after I graduate.  This summer I’ll be working in Dr. Cristol’s lab looking into the effects of mercury on zebra finches.

My particular project is in the earliest of stages and I’m planning to look into the effects of timing and duration of mercury exposure on beak redness in zebra finches.  My research will be a follow-up to research done by Jessica Spickler who was a grad student at W&M years ago. She found that there was a significant difference between the beak redness of male zebra finches who had been exposed to mercury their whole lives compared to male zebra finches who were exposed to mercury only during adulthood.

I’ll be working with an existing setup – an NSF funded study that does exposes zebra finches to sub-lethal quantities of mercury during their early life and development. The NSF study results in four different treatments that the finches could undergo during their first 100 days of life; the first of which is not being exposed to mercury at all, the second is being exposed to mercury only in their first 50 days of life, the third is being exposed to mercury only in their second 50 days, and the final group of finches is exposed to mercury for their first 100 days of life. This will allow me to measure whether beak redness is affected in zebra finches during early life and development.

Mercury is a toxic and persistent pollutant found in the environment that many songbirds inhabit today.  As beak redness is a sexually selected trait, it would be advantageous for male zebra finches to have redder beaks in order to be deemed most-fit by females and to successfully pass their genes on to the next generation. Thus, if mercury effects beak redness in a controlled lab setting we can extrapolate and hypothesize that the similar effects will be seen in the environment as a result of mercury toxicity.