Understanding the drivers of biodiversity

Understanding the drivers of biodiversity

The first Max Planck Center in Africa investigates how species interactions evolve and generate diversity

June 10, 2024

Studying behavioural interactions between bird species, and between birds and humans, is the goal of a new research center jointly founded by the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, and the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence. Over the next five years, the 'Max Planck–University of Cape Town Centre for Behaviour and Coevolution' will investigate how behaviour, communication, learning, evolution, and biodiversity are interrelated and how a changing environment affects these relationships. The first Max Planck Center on the African continent will foster the formation of strong new links between the research communities in Africa and Europe. The Center is financially supported by the Max Planck Foundation.

The diversity of life on Earth is largely found in the tropics, such as on much of the African continent. Stable climatic conditions have enabled many species to coexist over long periods of time and to coordinate their behaviour and interactions. This richness of biodiversity - both in the classical sense and in terms of behaviour - allows researchers to study how interactions between species function in their natural environment and how they evolve.

The first Max Planck Center in Africa brings together the scientific and technical expertise, field research experience, and bird study systems of the two partner institutions. The Center will also develop new collaborations and incorporate and expand existing partnerships with colleagues in Zambia and Mozambique, who can provide exceptional skills and resources for field research.

Eggshell colors, honeyguides and changing habitats

Research at the new Max Planck Center will focus on three areas. First, the scientists will investigate the behavioural interactions between brood parasites and their hosts. Brood parasites are bird species that cause other birds to hatch their eggs and raise their young. They usually try to mimic the eggs of their hosts, while the hosts develop strategies to recognize the parasite eggs, for example by evolving changes in the appearance of their own eggs. The genetic and social factors that shape egg colour and pattern, and the learning processes that shape their recognition by hosts, are not yet fully understood.

Second, the Center will investigate the interactions between a free-living bird species, the greater honeyguide, and humans in different regions of Africa. The partnership is one of only two known extant examples of mutually beneficial cooperation between humans and free-living animals: the birds help humans to find honey-bee nests, and benefit from the technical abilities of humans to access the contents of the nest (including the wax, which the honeyguides can digest). The researchers want to investigate the mechanisms by which such cultural behaviours coevolve and how they reinforce each other's cultural traditions. In so doing, the scientists also hope to help predict and secure the future of this remarkable part of human heritage, given that the cultural landscape of Africa is changing rapidly and the reciprocal relationship between honeyguides and humans is disappearing.

Third, the researchers want to understand how interactions between species respond and adapt to changing environmental conditions, such as higher temperatures and drier seasons. For example, the scientists want to investigate how the patterns and colors of eggshells change when temperatures rise, since birds may have to make compromises to simultaneously protect their eggs from overheating, predators, and brood parasites. The team also wants to investigate how the annual cycle of tropical birds may be shaped by the microbes they interact with, whether as partners or as enemies, and how these relationships may be reshaped in a rapidly changing world.

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