New Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Scientists will investigate collective behaviour and movement patterns of animals

May 07, 2019

The Max Planck Society has announced a commitment to advancing the study of animal behaviour in an era shaped by rapid technological change. The new Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior will focus on quantitative research into the collective behaviour and movement patterns of animals, and will help position Germany as a world leader in applying advanced technologies to studying the behaviour of diverse animal groups. Situated in an interdisciplinary hub for collective behaviour in Konstanz, the new independent institute will be led by three global leaders in animal behaviour. In addition to the existing departments of Martin Wikelski and Iain Couzin, another research department will be established: Margaret Crofoot moves from the University of California in Davis to Konstanz.

Research into collective behaviour is the focus of the new Max Planck Institute Animal Behavior. Among other things, the scientists of the institute are investigating the swarm behaviour of these sunbleaks in large water basins in the laboratory.

After the Senate of the Max Planck Society approved the independence of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell and Konstanz in November 2018, the Joint Science Conference has now approved to jointly fund the new institute to be located in Konstanz.

The Max Planck scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior will investigate animal groups as diverse as locusts, fish, flying foxes, baboons, and birds. Martin Wikelski, formerly of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, investigates animal migrations around the globe. His colleague Iain Couzin in Konstanz analyses collective behaviour of animals.  

Focus on collective behavior

With the appointment of Margaret Crofoot as director, the new institute will further expand its research focus. The American scientist worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell from 2008 to 2013 and studied the group behaviour of monkeys. She then did research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama and is now a professor at the University of California. After her time at the Max Planck Institute in Radolfzell, she continued to collaborate with the two directors in various research projects and is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Martin Wikelski's Icarus Project. She will return to Germany in July 2019 as an Alexander von Humboldt Professor.

Margaret Crofoot investigates the formation of complex societies using the group behaviour of monkeys as an example. She is particularly interested in how the collective behaviour of a group emerges from the contacts and relationships between individuals. Together with Iain Couzin, the researcher investigated how groups of baboon decide which path to take. "Our scientific priorities complement each other well and we will benefit greatly from each other. The future collaboration promises fascinating new insights into the group behaviour of animals," says Couzin.

Interdisciplinary research cluster

All three directors are also professors at the University of Konstanz and play a major role in the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour, one of two university's new clusters of excellence. At the heart of the Konstanz hub is a signature building, the Centre for Visual Computing of Collectives, which will be an interdisciplinary facility for analysis of behavioural data drawing from expertise in computer science, artificial intelligence, data science, and related fields. “Research into animal behaviour and movements can only succeed if scientists from a wide range of disciplines work together. With the university and its interdisciplinary excellence cluster Konstanz offers ideal conditions for this," says Martin Wikelski.

Research into the collective behaviour and movement patterns of animals is regarded as a particularly promising field of research for the future. State-of-the-art technologies help researchers to investigate the behaviour of animals in the wild or in the laboratory. Thanks to miniaturized measuring devices on the animals' bodies and reception antennae in space, they can now even follow the movements of small animal species almost around the clock and anywhere on earth. The complex movement patterns in swarms of animals can only be analyzed with modern computer programs for image and movement recognition.

The Max Planck Institute for Ornithology emerged in 1997 from the former Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology in Seewiesen and the associated Radolfzell ornithological station. Initially founded as a Max Planck Research Centre, it was given the status of a Max Planck Institute consisting of two subinstitutes in 2004 with locations in Seewiesen near Starnberg and Radolfzell.

Interview with Margaret C. Crofoot

Why I chose Germany

Interview with Margaret C. Crofoot
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