My research interests centre on communication and behaviour.
In particular I am interested in acoustic communication, vocal production, vocal
learning and the evolution of animal signals. In my research, I use a
hypothesis-driven approach to investigate how the sounds that animals (including
humans) make are shaped by their anatomy, physiology, and behaviour and by their
In my dissertation research I investigated novel sources of peripheral vocal
complexity and the way that the two sides of the songbird vocal organ, the
syrinx contribute to, and constrain vocal production and complexity. Read more about this research here
Currently, I am working in the Communication and Social Behaviour Group at
the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology . Our research covers a range of topics
related to vocal production and vocal plasticity. In particular we study how
birds and other animals cope with urban noise pollution. Noise is a problem of
growing concern for conservation biologists as well as for those concerned with
human health and safety. Across the globe, high levels of noise pollution have
been linked with decreased breeding success, species richness, and changes in
vocal behaviour in a variety of bird, mammal and amphibian species.
Chronic exposure to loud noise has been shown to increase physiological
stress responses such as elevated plasma glucocorticoids and depressed immune
function, and increased oxidative stress in the brain and organs of the immune
system. Chronic noise can result in high blood pressure, hyperglycemia, and
elevated cholesterol levels as well as delays in brain development, impaired
cognitive function and deficits in learning and memory. Chronic noise exposure
in children has been linked to increased plasma glucocorticoid levels, learning
delays and reading and language comprehension deficits. We are using songbirds
as model organisms to investigate how noise affects the behaviour and fitness of
I also investigate the syrinx (the vocal organ) of birds across different
taxa, to see how the diversity in structure of this organ shapes the voices of
different species. On an ecological and evolutionary scale, by identifying the
aspects of song most difficult for birds to produce and the sources of
complexity in bird vocalizations, we gain insights into the forces and constrain
or enhance vocal communication and understand better the selective forces that
drive the evolution of vocal signalling.
I am currently working on several different projects related to acoustic
communication, vocal physiology and the evolution of vocal signalling.
Indiana University, Bloomington, IN (1999-2007) Ph.D.
Biology (minor certificates in Neural Science and Animal Behavior).
Title: "Performance Constraints and Vocal Complexity In Birdsong: Evidence From
a Vocal Mimic"
University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD
(1995-1999) B.S. (Cum Laude), Biological Sciences - May 1999
Thesis: "A Novel Method for Monitoring Nocturnal Behavior in a Weakly Electric
Fish, Aperonotus albifrons"
University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
School of Art and Design, minor focus - Biological Sciences
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago IL
BFA program. major focus - printmaking and photography, minor
focus - film history
Research Scientist, (April- 2010 - present). Max Planck
Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Germany.
BBSRC-Funded Postdoctoral Research Fellow, (Jan 2008 - April
2010). University of St Andrews, Department of Biology. St Andrews, Fife, UK.
NIHMH-Funded Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2007). University
of Indiana, Medical Sciences Department, Bloomington, IN, USA
Associate Instructor, (Fall 1999 - Spring 2000, Spring
2006). Department of Biology, Indiana University.
Predoctoral Trainee, Speech Research Laboratory, Indiana University NIH-NIDCD
CISAB Graduate Scholar Fellowship, Center for the Integrative Study of Animal
Behavior, Indiana University. 2004-2005.
Teaching Excellence Recognition Award 1999-2000. College of Arts and
Sciences, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.
Summer Fellowship 2000, Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior,
Indiana University, Bloomington IN.
Best Student Presentation Award. Indiana University Animal Behavior
Conference. Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior. April 2002.
Research Poster Award. Women in Science Research Day, Indiana University.
S. Zollinger. Mechanisms for vocal complexity in songbirds. The Institute for
Theoretical Biology, Humboldt University. Berlin, Germany. August 20, 2003.
S. Zollinger. Mechanisms for vocal complexity in songbirds. Cold Spring
Harbor Laboratories, Cold Spring Harbor, NY, USA. January 10, 2006.
S. Zollinger. Singing on the Edge: Costs of pushing vocal production to the
extremes. Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Radolfzell, Germany. November 3,
S. Zollinger. Impacts of urban noise on song learning and vocal production in
birds. 8th Conference of the European Ornithological Union, Riga, Latvia. August
Public Science Publications and Outreach Projects
Science Journalism - Regular scriptwriter for "A Moment of Science", a
syndicated public radio science program, produced by WFIU, Indiana University
Bloomington. 2006 - 2010.
Public Math & Science Week Outreach - Helped organize and run a community
outreach activity at St Andrews University. Designed an interactive exhibit on
birds and urban noise. April 2008.
Ad-hoc peer reviewer
Journal of Experimental Biology, Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology,
Behaviour, Ethology, Animal Behaviour, Functional Ecology, Biology Letters.
Organizational Unit (Department, Group, Facility):
- MPI for Ornithology Seewiesen
- Research Group Brumm