Acoustic and Functional Ecology
The research group “Acoustic and Functional Ecology” has started on March 1st, 2014, funded by a 5 year Emmy Noether award of the German Research Foundation (DFG). The group’s research focuses on the mechanisms, ecology and evolution of sensory perception and auditory-guided behaviour, using echolocating bats and eared moths as a model system.
Sensory processes are at the centre of an animal’s perception of the world and its actions in this world, including some of the most crucial behaviours for survival such as foraging and predator avoidance. Accordingly, natural selection has not only shaped the morphology of animals, but also their sensory and behavioural properties. Our overall scientific objective is to understand the function of sensory systems and their consequences for ecological and evolutionary processes. In our research, we study bats and moths as two model systems for complex and simple auditory processing and auditory-guided behaviour.
Echolocating bats rely to a large extent on auditory information for orientation, foraging and communication. Bats are thus a great model system to study auditory processing and the adaptation of sensory processes to ecological requirements. In our research, we address questions of sound-based perception of the environment, the use of sound for inter-individual and inter-specific interactions, the importance of dynamic sensory processing for the perception of complex and variable auditory scenes, and effects of the environment, including climate change, on sound-based perception.
In contrast to the flexible sensory-motor system of bats, the ears of noctuoid moths are simple. They consist of only 1-4 auditory neurons and trigger a two-staged evasive flight response, consisting of directional and erratic flight to escape attacking bats. The well-studied neurobiology of the simple moth ear provides an ideal foundation for a systematic study of the evasive behaviour of moths, which is the phenotype selected by bat predation. Moth families differ in the number of auditory receptor cells (1-4 cells) and additional antipredator strategies. This allows to study the function and adaptive value of evasive flight and protean escape mechanisms in a comparative approach and to test biological hypotheses, for example on the risk-dependent evolution of erratic flight, sustained erratic flight without sensory input and phenotypic variability as adaptation to predation pressure.
Echolocating bats and moths with bat-detecting ears are tightly connected in an evolutionary arms race. Their predator-prey-relationship is solely based on acoustic information and auditory-guided behaviour for foraging and for predator avoidance, respectively. They interact with one another in a functional, ecological and evolutionary relationship, adding additional layers of complexity and interdependence. Our research addresses auditory processing and auditory guided behaviours on all these levels, from individuals to populations. They are thus a perfect and highly integrated model system to study auditory-guided flight at two extremes of sensory processing.