Dr. Sue Anne Zollinger

Dr. Sue Anne Zollinger

Research Scientist

Main Focus

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 environment.

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 exposed individuals.

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.

Curriculum Vitae

Academic Qualifications
Indiana University, Bloomington, IN (1999-2007) Ph.D. Biology (minor certificates in Neural Science and Animal Behavior).
Thesis 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
Honors Thesis: "A Novel Method for Monitoring Nocturnal Behavior in a Weakly Electric Fish, Aperonotus albifrons"

University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL (1992-1994)
School of Art and Design, minor focus - Biological Sciences

School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago IL (1987-1990)
BFA program. major focus - printmaking and photography, minor focus - film history

Academic Positions
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.

Fellowship awards
Predoctoral Trainee, Speech Research Laboratory, Indiana University NIH-NIDCD DC00012. 2000-2004.
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. Spring 2003

Invited talks
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, 2009.
S. Zollinger. Impacts of urban noise on song learning and vocal production in birds. 8th Conference of the European Ornithological Union, Riga, Latvia. August 27, 2011.

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
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