June 01, 2010
Text: Marcus Anhäuser
Just three more boxes. Manfred Gahr apologizes for the slight disarray. “Just these three and the move is complete,” he says. When they are unpacked, his office – the room in which renowned behavioural physiologist Erich von Holst once lived and worked – will be fully set up and ready for work. The fireplace by the door originates from von Holst’s time, but there is little else that recalls this great era of classical behavioral biology. For the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, southwest of Munich, a period of radical change has come to an end.
The institute, formerly known as the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology and located in a forest between Lakes Starnberg and Ammer, has just emerged from four years of reorganization and renovation. It is steeped in history: many famous behavioral scientists have researched here, the most prominent being Konrad Lorenz. Since his appointment, Gahr, together with fellow Director Bart Kempenaers, has mainly been occupied with the planning and restructuring of the entire institute complex and the simultaneous establishment of a new research department. “Apart from the outer walls, hardly a single stone remains in place,” he says. A fitting celebration in honor of its completion is being planned for next summer.
In the meantime, the 50-year-old scientist, who was born in the Palatinate region of Germany, can once again concentrate on his actual research objective: unlocking the secret of birdsong. With the help of a wide array of methods from the fields of electrophysiology, molecular biology and behavioral biology, Gahr and his team aim to find out what goes on in a bird’s head when it sings or hears the chirping of its conspecifics. Birds do not sing for the fun of it. Behind this activity lie very concrete interests: male birds learn their song to impress females and to enhance their reproductive prospects.