Measuring a white-browed coucal in the field

Physiological ecology of life histories

Wolfgang Goymann

The world consists of many different and diverse environments (or biomes). Some of these biomes are characterized by little annual fluctuations in environmental conditions such as temperature, rainfall, or food abundance (e.g. tropical moist broadleaf forests). Others show large, but highly predictable annual fluctuations in environmental conditions (e.g. temperate broadleaf or mixed forests), and there are also biomes with large and highly unpredictable fluctuations of environmental parameters (e.g. many deserts and xeric scrublands).

To survive and successfully reproduce, an animal’s morphology, physiology and behaviour needs to be tuned to these environmental conditions. As a consequence animals have evolved myriads of character traits and adopted various life-history strategies to cope with the challenges posed by their environment.

Knowing the physiological underpinnings of life histories and the flexibility of physiological control systems to environmental change are key to understanding the impact of human-induced global change on different animal species and populations. With this knowledge we can predict which species may be more likely to suffer from human-induced change.

We are interested in the interplay between physiology, behaviour and ecology of animals and how different environments and life histories shape physiological control mechanisms of behaviour.

Current projects:

Which ecological, physiological and evolutionary factors drive the drastic differences in behaviour and life-history of closely related coucal species? To tackle these questions we study colour-ringed and radiotagged coucals in the Usangu Plains, Tanzania.


Behaviour, population ecology and population trends in the whinchat

The whinchat used to be a common bird in Europe, but the intensification of agriculture largely expelled this meadow-breeding bird from our cultural landscapes. Alarmingly, this relatively unpretentious species is declining also in protected areas. We study a population in the Murnauer Moos, the largest intact wetland north of the Alps and a biodiversity hotspot.

Individual birds show huge differences in the concentration of hormones such as testosterone or corticosterone. Which environmental, social and intrinsic factors drive these huge differences in hormone levels? And how do these differences affect survival, health, fecundity, and reproductive success of individuals?


Bird migration requires drastic changes in behaviour and physiology, but the physiological mechanisms that underlie these transitions are largely unexplored.
We study the physiology of stop-over behaviour of migratory songbirds on Ponza, an island in the Mediterranean Sea.

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