Department of Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics
Who is the perfect partner and how do individuals find him or her? This question becomes relevant to every individual at some point in their lives, and is also the key to understanding many aspects of animal behaviour. The research of the department of Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics focuses on the evolution of mate choice, parental care, and promiscuity in birds. We study why individuals differ in their mating behaviour and how this affects their reproductive success and survival.
Every individual of a species is unique. Individual variation can be found in morphology (for example in body size, in plumage and beak colour) as well as in behaviour such as mate choice strategies or competitive behaviour. What are the causes of this variation in natural populations and what maintains the variation? What is the role of sexual selection? What information is contained in the variation? How important is individual recognition?
Our research focuses on the evolution of mate choice and sexual ornaments in birds. Which criteria do individuals use to select a short- or long-term partner? Why do birds divorce and why do they engage in copulation with multiple partners? Which signals are used in mate choice? Do they reflect individual quality? What does the development of such signals cost an individual? What is the importance of individual genetic diversity (heterozygosity-fitness correlations)? To answer these questions, we study birds in their natural habitat, as well as in captivity. We use a combination of behavioural observations and molecular methods, including microsatellite analysis and a candidate gene approach.
Our main study is on blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus), a small songbird that breeds in nestboxes and remains resident in winter. Our study area is a protected oak-rich forest in Bavaria. Over the coming decades, we plan to monitor the life-history of all individuals in the population, using advances in transponder technology. We also work with a variety of other species, including house sparrows, red queleas and zebra finches. In the tundra near Barrow (Alaska), we study the mating strategies of two shorebirds: the monogamous semipalmated sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) and the polygynous pectoral sandpiper (Calidris melanotos).