Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Birds provide an ideal subject of research for a variety of fundamental biologic questions. Bird song for example resembles human language in many ways. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen want to find out how bird song has developed through learning process and what role neuronal principles and hormones play in this process. Furthermore they study the evolution of partner selection and loyalty of partners. Why do individuals differ in their mating behaviour and how does this affect their reproductive success, are examples of questions, that they search the answers for.

Currently, the institute hosts two departments and several independent research groups.

Contact

Eberhard-Gwinner-Straße
82319 Seewiesen
Phone: +49 8157 932-0
Fax: +49 8157 932-209

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):

IMPRS for Organismal Biology

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Department Behavioural Neurobiology

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Department Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics

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Problems with reproduction in birds

With zebra-finches, infertility is mostly due to the males, while the death of embryos is due to the females

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Avian tree of life better resolved

Max Planck researchers clarify relationships between bird families

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Wading birds: shorebirds with unusual social structures

Waders display fascinating behaviour patterns, but are also exemplary for the loss of biodiversity

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Winter associations predict social and extra-pair mating patterns in blue tits

Blue tits that often foraged together during winter were more likely to end up as breeding pairs or as extra-pair partners, whereby bonds between future breeding partners seem to establish earlier in winter than those between future extra-pair partners.

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First come, first bred

Arriving early in the breeding area is crucial for successful reproduction also in non-migratory birds

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Two shadows flit around in the evening light. A bat is chasing after a moth in a wild dance between hunter and prey. For Holger Goerlitz, pursuits like this one are a real thrill. The leader of an Emmy Noether Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen is researching how bats and insects use sound to detect each other.

No zebra finch emerges from the egg as an accomplished singer: each young bird first has to take singing lessons. Songbirds are therefore excellent model organisms for the study of learning processes in vertebrates. Manfred Gahr and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen are conducting research into how various songbird species learn their songs and what happens in their brains during the process.

Until recently, following the crowd was not seen as a desirable goal in life. These days, however, everyone is talking about swarm intelligence. But are swarms really smarter than individuals? And what rules, if any, do they follow? With the help of new computational techniques, Iain Couzin from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell imposes order on the seeming chaos of swarms.

For humans, even a brief bout of sleepiness while driving can have fatal consequences. Frigatebirds, on the other hand, can snooze while cruising through the air without crashing to the ground. What’s more, they generally get by on very little sleep during their long flights over the open ocean, which can last for days. A team of scientists working with Niels Rattenborg at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen has demonstrated for the first time that birds can fly in sleep mode.

From the tropical rainforest to the urban jungle, birds have conquered many habitats on our planet – and they sing in nearly all of them. Henrik Brumm at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen studies how they use song to communicate with each other. He has taken a particular liking to one extraordinarily talented singer.

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The neural basis of duet singing – a neurophysiological field study

2019 Hoffmann, Susanne; Gahr, Manfred

Behavioural Biology Ecology Neurosciences

Duet singing is a form of social interaction between two individuals which requires the precise interindividual coordination of vocal emissions. How the brain controls this cooperative behavior was so far unknown. Here, the individual vocalizations and the underlying brain activity in free-living pairs of duetting songbirds has been recorded in parallel with novel miniature transmitters. The data revealed that preprogrammed temporal duet patterns in each songbird’s brain were altered by the partner’s vocalizations to enable optimal interindividual coordination during joint singing.

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Acoustic invisibility cloaks and pricked-up ears

2018 Goerlitz, Holger R.

Behavioural Biology Ecology

Our sensory systems are our access to the world. In an evolutionary arms race, bats and insects interact as predator and prey based on exclusively acoustic information. Using microphone systems in the lab and field, we investigate which information and sensory strategies bats use for hunting insect prey. To counter the prey’s defence systems, some bats became inaudible for their unsuspecting prey, while other species rely on the prey’s rustling noises or eavesdrop on the foraging calls of other close-by bats.

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Sleeping on the wing

2017 Rattenborg, Niels C.

Behavioural Biology Ecology Microbiology Neurosciences Physiology

For centuries, people have wondered whether birds sleep on the wing during long, non-stop flights. However, until recently there was no direct evidence for sleep in flight. Measuring the brain activity of frigatebirds in the wild showed that these birds can sleep with either one cerebral hemisphere at a time or both hemispheres simultaneously. Despite being able to engage in all types of sleep in flight, the birds slept less than an hour a day, a mere fraction of the time spent sleeping on land.

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Individual shrinking and regrowth as a winter adaption in high-metabolic mammals

2016 Dechmann, D.K.M.; Hertel, M.; Wikelski, M.

Behavioural Biology Ecology Physiology

Skull and body size usually don't change anymore in fully-grown animals. Red-toothed shrews (Sorex spp.) are a notable exception: they shrink in anticipation of the winter and regrow in preparation for reproduction. This process affects the brain, several other major organs, bones and also the cognitive abilities. The phenomenon is also found in weasels, which share many life history traits, especially an exceedingly high metabolism. The study is important for our understanding of evolution, and has profound implications for medical research.

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How sex hormones regulate birdsong

2015 Dittrich, Falk; Frankl-Vilches, Carolina; Ko, Meng-Ching; Diales da Rocha, Mariana; Leitner, Stefan; Gahr, Manfred

Behavioural Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics Neurosciences Physiology

Species-specific seasonal changes of bird song, that are caused by sex hormones, can be a consequence of distinct gene expression patterns induced in the song control system. In songbirds, different sex hormone activities are based on divergent genomic regulatory mechanisms. However, neuronal wiring of the songbird as well as mammalian brain is modified by sex hormones via to some extent comparable cellular processes.

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