Research at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Research at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Birds are probably the most fascinating species in the world - no other group attracts so many devotees and amateur scientists. As diurnal animals, birds can be seen everywhere. They move into every kind of territory, even apparently inhospitable areas such as the Antarctica or the Sahara Desert. For researchers, birds are ideal study objects for a whole range of fundamental biological questions: birds are spread all around the world. They are abundant in species and rich in adaptation. They share their habitats with humans more than any other animal group, which means they act as important biological indicators.

At the Max Planck Institute in Seewiesen and Radolfzell, researchers work in four departments and currently seven independent research groups.

The Department of Collective Behaviour studies groups of live animals such as fish schools, swarms of birds or insects. These groups of animals often exhibit complex and coordinated behaviours that result from social interactions between individuals. The Department combines mathematical models of group dynamics with observational and experimental studies of animals in the wild. By integrating neurobiology with movement ecology of social groups, research in this Department provides unsurpassed opportunities to quantify the behaviour of individuals in the context of the collective.

The Department of Behavioural Neurobiology focuses on the sexual differentiation of the brain, seeking to understand the mechanisms responsible for the development of sex-specific behaviours and sensory processing. In this context, the researchers study the endocrine, molecular and neurobiological mechanisms of innate and learned vocalization of various bird species in a natural setting. Songbirds display a large variety of gender-specific singing behaviour, making them ideal models for studies investigating sex differences in behaviour.

Who is the perfect partner and how do individuals find him or her? This is a question relevant to every individual at some point in time, and is also key to understanding many aspects of animal behaviour. The Department of Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics focuses on the evolution of mate choice, parental care, and promiscuity in birds. The scientists study why individuals differ in their mating behaviour and how this affects their reproductive success and survival.

The Department of Migration and Immuno-Ecology in Radolfzell aims to understand why animals migrate, how they move from one place to another, and how they survive. To analyse global animal migrations, the scientists equip individuals with state-of-the-art radio transmitters. Data from these transmitters are collected and stored in an online database accessible to researchers and the public around the globe. This research will provide new insights into how organisms cope with the effect of climate change, disease, and human alterations of their natural habitat.

In the several research groups, highly skilled researchers are given the opportunity to conduct their own research programme funded by the Max Planck Society or external resources. Not only birds are studied in these groups, but also bats.

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