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. At the Radolfzell Ornithological Station, a sub-institute, scientists research bird and other animal migration behaviour: how do animals get from one place to another and how do they survive? All data are being collected in an international database to be able to combine them and to do long term studies. Those data can be important for the humans in that aspect that birds and insects often spread diseases.


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 more
Department Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics more
Migration pays off for songbirds
Blackbirds that spend the winter in the south are more likely to survive the cold season than their conspecifics in central Europe more
Icarus lifts off
The Icarus on-board computer, the first component of the global animal observatory system, has gone into space more
Bats anticipate optimal weather conditions
For the common noctule, wind speed, wind direction and air pressure trigger its set off for its summer territories more
Glass fronts can be acoustic illusions for bats
Bats fail to detect smooth, vertical surfaces when they are in a rush more
Mutation speeds up sperm of zebra finches
Gene inversion gives reproductive advantage to zebra finches more
Reptile vocalization is surprisingly flexible
Phenotypic plasticity of gecko calls reveals the complex communication of lizards more
Snoozing between the skies and Earth
A team of scientists headed by Niels Rattenborg from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen has demonstrated, for the first time that birds can fly in sleep mode more
Lack of opportunities promotes brood care
Female white-browed coucals have to suffice with a single mate more
Singing in the flight lane
Birds adjust their singing activity around airport noise more
The great tit, <em>Parus major,</em> does better in the countryside
Birds in urban settings have fewer and smaller offspring than their rural counterparts more
First evidence of sleep in flight
Birds engage in all types of sleep in flight, but in remarkably small amounts more
Great apes communicate cooperatively
Gestural communication in bonobos and chimpanzees shows turn-taking and clearly distinguishable communication styles more
Competition favours shy tits
Explorative great tits have fewer chances to survive in high population densities more
Mother-infant communication in chimpanzees
Initiation of joint travel in mother-infant dyads is communicated via gestures and vocalisations more

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.

During language acquisition, gestures seem vital to learning how to speak. They help us emphasize and structure what we say. Simone Pika from the Humboldt Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen wants to know whether gestures were an evolutionary precursor of human language and how they develop. To investigate this question, the researcher studies the communication strategies of great apes in natural environments, but also corvids and human infants.

A Four-Legged Early-Warning System

Environment & Climate
In many parts of the world, goats are important suppliers of milk, meat and hides. However, Martin Wikelski, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, has very different plans for these modest animals: he wants to use them to predict volcanic eruptions.
Galapagos – the name has a magical ring to it, and not just for biologists. A unique flora and fauna developed on this group of islands located some 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador. When Charles Darwin reached the archipelago in 1835, it was, besides the finches, above all the sub-species of giant tortoises, each specifically adapted to the ecological conditions of their individual island, that inspired his thoughts on the origin of species. But even then, many sub-species were already extinct: their ability to go for very long periods without food and water made the tortoises ideal provisions for seafarers. Today, there are still ten sub-species living on six of the islands. They are endangered primarily by non-native species, such as rats and goats, and human encroachment on their habitat. The portly animals, which can weigh up to 300 kilograms, feed on shrubs, leaves and grasses, depending on the kind of vegetation available on their home island. Some tortoises undertake long voyages between the lowlands and the higher areas on the volcanic slopes, which are lush with vegetation even in the dry season; others spend the whole year in the lowlands, which can sometimes be very dry. To learn more about these migrations, scientists working with Stephen Blake from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology attach GPS loggers and ultramodern 3-D accelerometers to the shells of some of the tortoises. This allows them to precisely track the animals over long periods and compare their observations with climate and vegetation data. Their findings were surprising: it is primarily adult males that walk up to ten kilometers in search of fresh, succulent food. But the researchers are still puzzled as to why the giant tortoises, which can go for months without eating, undertake these strenuous journeys.
Many animal species have made their homes in towns and cities. However, the conditions they encounter there are different than those under which they would live in a natural environment. Henrik Brumm, Jesko Partecke and Bart Kempenaers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen and Radolfzell are studying the effects of city living on our native songbirds. In the process, they have discovered some surprising behavioral changes.
What goes on in the heads of zebra finches when the males and females engage in a tête-à-tête?

Sleepless in Seewiesen

MPR 3 /2008 Biology & Medicine
With the help of a wind tunnel, ornithologists are keen to find out whether migratory birds occasionally sleep with one brain hemisphere during long-distance flights.
Zebra finches exhibit major differences in their mating and sexual behavior – from shy to aggressive. Evolutionary biologists question what advantages such a high degree of individuality can have.
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Individual shrinking and regrowth as a winter adaption in high-metabolic mammals

2017 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.


How sex hormones regulate birdsong

2016 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.


Why females cheat with old males

2015 Schroeder, Julia
Behavioural Biology Ecology Physiology

Anisogamy leads to females being expected to be the choosier sex. However, when females cheat on their social partners, they seek males as mates that are older than their social partner but with whom they produce offspring of lower fitness. This is what a team around researchers of the MPI for Ornithology found in house sparrows. Also, old mothers produced daughters of low fitness compared to young mothers. These findings are important, as this patterns has been found to a limit also in humans. Thus, with increasing age of reproduction we may pass on the costs of this to the next generation.


Genes and environment: how do they influence behaviour and physiology of songbirds?

2014 Leitner, Stefan
Behavioural Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Neurosciences Physiology

Environmental factors can have a large impact on behaviour and the underlying physiology. For example, island canaries advance the onset of breeding in response to growing plants. In zebra finches both song and the song control regions in the brain show low heritability but are highly sensitive to changes of the environment. In contrast, brain size largely depends on the interaction between genes and the environment. In this way additive genetic variation is maintained. These results emphasize the major importance of environmental factors for vocal learning and neural development in songbirds.


Can hormonal processes adapt fast enough to rapid environmental changes?

2014 Hau, Michaela
Behavioural Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Physiology

Hormones, as parts of complex regulatory systems, mediate environmental adjustments of organisms. Can hormonal systems change fast enough to keep up with rapid changes in the environment? In birds, concentrations of the hormone corticosterone are related to evolved differences in reproductive investment. Even within a bird species corticosterone patterns predict the reproductive success of individuals. Future studies will determine selection pressures, heritabilities and rate of evolutionary changes in hormones.


Look at this: Ravens use referential gestures

2012 Pika, Simone
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science Evolutionary Biology
The Humboldt Research Group focuses on cognitive complexity underlying gestural signaling in three model groups to uncover the mystery of language evolution: different human cultures; closely related species; and species which live in comparable social systems. In a new study, they showed that ravens use their beaks similarly to hands to show and offer objects to conspecifics. These referential gestures may be used to test the interest of a potential partner or to strengthen an already existing relationship. more

Sexual infidelity: the development of evolutionary explanations

2012 Forstmeier, Wolfgang
Behavioural Biology Evolutionary Biology Genetics
A long-term study on the genetic inheritance of sexual behavior in the zebra finch conducted at the MPIO casts new light on the causes of sexual infidelity. Previously, it was always assumed that female infidelity could only evolve if it was beneficial to females. The present study, however, shows that this is not necessarily the case. Since male and female infidelity appear to be controlled by largely the same genes, the existence of female infidelity may simply be explained by the fact that the responsible genetic variants were positively selected in the male ancestors. more

The biology of bird song: adaptation and plasticity of animal behaviour

2011 Brumm, Henrik
Behavioural Biology Ecology
Scientists at the MPI for Ornithology investigate bird song as a model for sexually selected signals. Female songbirds prefer loud songs, which can be used as a signal of high male body condition. The honesty of the signal is maintained by social aggression of rival males. At the same time, birds need to adjust their songs to the physical properties of their habitats to ensure signal transmission. This results in a complex interplay between natural and sexual selection, during which signal plasticity plays an important role as well as special adaptations of signal structure. more

Evolution of Animal Personality

2011 Dingemanse, Niels Jeroen
Behavioural Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology
Birds and other animals differ in their behaviour like humans differ in personality. Certain individuals are consistently more aggressive, explorative, and bold compared to other animals from the same population, and this variation is in part genetically determined. The department of Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics studies individual variation in behaviour with the aim of i) revealing why animal personality has evolved and ii) learning how this variation might be maintained, using wild passerine bird populations (great tits) as an experimental model system. more

Evolution of avian life history biodiversity

2010 Dale, James
Behavioural Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology
The birds are a specious vertebrate taxon (~9800 species) that show an amazing diversity of life history strategies. A research group from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology studies this diversity with an aim to understanding the general principles that govern evolutionary and geographical patterns of size dimorphism, clutch sizes and even our knowledge of species themselves. more

How do bats perceive the world?

2009 Siemers, Björn
Behavioural Biology Ecology
Scientists at the MPI for Ornithology investigate echolocation and sensory performance in bats. Coexisting bat species often differ in sensory abilities, thus find different prey and reduce interspecific competition for food. It is difficult to detect insects in vegetation by echolocation. Bats rely on the faint rustling sounds of their prey in such a situation and hence run into trouble when exposed to background noise from a wind-moved reed bed or a highway. Bats also eavesdrop to find new tree roosts; conspecifcs’ calls help out. more

Sleep and Flight

2007 Rattenborg, Niels
Behavioural Biology Neurosciences
Sleep during migration in songbirds is the focus of the work of the group of Niels Rattenborg at MPI for Ornithology. With the modern wind-tunnel at Seewiesen and new measuring techniques the scientists want to explore if birds sleep during long distance migratory flights. Ultimately, understanding if and how birds sleep during migration may provide insight into the function of sleep. more

Individual sexual behaviour: the (sometimes) decisive role of the mother

2005 Forstmeier, Wolfgang
Behavioural Biology Evolutionary Biology
Zebra finches show remarkable differences in their individual sexual behaviour, and this variation seems to be strongly affected by non-genetic maternal effects. A research group from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology studies whether mothers strategically program the sexual behaviour of their offspring in response to the current social environment in order to maximise offspring fitness. more

Interval timing in cleaner wrasses

2005 Salwiczek, Lucie H.
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science
Studies of cognitive interval timing up to now focused mainly on the range from seconds to some minutes. However, individuals often face situations where they must adjust their behaviour to longer (but not circadian!) intervals. Still lacking for this time range are data and theoretical models, which could explain how animals solve such problems. A marine cleaner wrasse is now the first example, that a not warm-blooded vertebrate is able to time several different intervals simultaneously without external cues. more

Competing females and caring males - Sex-role reversal in the African black coucal

2004 Goymann, Wolfgang
Behavioural Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology
In most animals females provide parental care, while males defend resources and try to find additional mates. However, in a small percentage of animals the sex-roles are reversed and the males provide care for the offspring while the females compete amongst each other for resources and additional mates. The African black coucal is the only known bird species that combines an altricial development of young with such a sex-role reversed breeding system, termed ‘classical polyandry’. In the black coucal project we try to combine and integrate mechanistic and evolutionary questions about an unusual mating system. Currently we investigate mainly the following questions: (1) How is territorial, aggressive behaviour regulated in females and what triggers parental behaviour in males? (2) Do male black coucals insure their genetic paternity and how much do they invest in each brood? (3) How did classical polyandry evolve in black coucals? more
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