PhD Projects 2012

Deadline for application was January 15, 2012.

Comparative gestural signaling in orangutans (Pongo abelii / Pongo pygmaeus) in the wild

Abstract Language has often been used to define what it means to ‘be human’. Children begin to display nascent forms of communicative skills such as pre-linguistic gestures at around their first birthday. But how do these gestures differ between humans and other animals? By combining the ethological approach with methods of Comparative Psychology, our group investigates this question by focusing on the development and cognitive complexity underlying gestural behavior in different human cultures, closely related species, and species living in comparable social systems.
The PhD-project will especially focus on the gestural behavior of orangutan infants living in two different orangutan communities in Borneo (Tuanan) and Sumatra (Suaq Balimbing) in the wild. This project is a collaboration with Maria van Nordwijk and Carel van Schaik, University Irchel, Zürich, Switzerland.
You should have a background in Biology/Psychology or a related field. Previous experience with fieldwork, especially in tropical rain forests is essential, experience with great apes or monkeys are preferred. You should be physically fit, highly motivated, independent, responsible, and fluent in English.
Keywords language, gestures, cognitive complexity, development, Pongo abelii, Pongo pygmaeus
Main advisor Simone Pika, MPIO Seewiesen

Evolutionary Ecology of Variation

Abstract Our main research focusses on the proximate underpinning and ecological and evolutionary repercussions of between-individual in behaviour and other labile traits. We apply research paradigms that focus on the integration of behavioural ecology, quantitative genetics, and evolutionary biology. We study suites of key behavioural (exploratory tendency, anti-predator boldness, aggressiveness) and life-history traits in each of 12 nest box populations of great tits, and use experimental approaches to ask i) whether natural selection can help maintain individual variation and ii) whether variation itself has ecological and evolutionary repercussions. We encourage applicants with interest in the evolutionary ecology of variation to apply, where projects focussing on how parasites, (perceived) predation, or human disturbance, shape behavioural variation will certainly be considered. Applicants with interest in variation in promiscuity (and its links with personality) are also encouraged to apply (collaborative project with Bart Kempenaers). Successful applicants will be embedded in the Max Planck Research Group “Evolutionary Ecology of Variation” that will be launched per 1 April 2012.
Keywords behavioural ecology, animal personality, life-history, paternity, songbird
Main advisor Niels Dingemanse, MPIO Seewiesen

Effects of light pollution on reproductive behavior

Abstract In urban areas, animals are often faced with changes in the natural noise and light environment. Recent work showed that artificial night lighting can affect both circadian and circannual patterns of behavior. Males of several songbird species started their dawn singing earlier relative to sunrise when breeding near street lights, and male blue tits Cyanistes caeruleus in lighted territories were more successful at extra-pair mating. Female blue tits that bred near street lights also started egg laying earlier in the season. A PhD project is available to study effects of light pollution on seasonal and daily variation in the timing of singing. The project will focus on (a) fitness consequences of variation in the timing of singing, (b) the relationship between female fertility status and the timing of singing, and (c) the costs of early singing. The project requires intense fieldwork on a variety of songbirds; fieldwork can take place in several European countries, depending on the main focus of the project.
Keywords behavioral ecology, singing behavior, reproductive success, multiple paternity, songbird
Main advisor Bart Kempenaers, MPIO Seewiesen

Evolutionary physiology of birds

Abstract Our main research interest is to understand the ways in which animals evolve physiological adaptations to the environment in which they live. We focus on the evolution of three physiological systems: i) seasonal reproduction, ii) endocrine control of behavior, and iii) circadian rhythms. Currently we investigate, for example, how individual variation in physiological organization translate into various components of fitness. Our main study species is the great tit, Parus major, a well-studied and abundant species across Europe. We approach micro-evolutionary questions using natural variation in the wild, phenotypic engineering (hormone manipulations), telemetry, and behavioral observations, eventually extending into quantitative genetics approaches.
Keywords evolution, physiology, hormone, stress, behavior, fitness
Main advisor Michaela Hau, MPIO Radolfzell

Mechanisms of altitudinal migrations

Abstract Around the world, animals conduct seasonal altitudinal migrations. We are interested to document in detail, and analyze mechanistically, additional altitudinal migrations around the globe in order to compare patterns and processes between altitudinal migration systems. At the same time, we need better and more numerous comparisons between altitudinal and other seasonal migration systems for generalizations. We encourage applications towards understanding altitudinal migrations in various systems globally.
Keywords animal migration, mountains, Himalayas, Andes, Alps, high altitude
Main advisor Martin Wikelski, MPIO Radolfzell

Ecology and evolution of partial migration

Abstract Partial migration, i.e. if one part of the population migrates whereas the other part of the same population does not, is a common phenomenon among many animals. We are interested both in the ecological processes that drive this fascinating dichotomy as well as the underlying mechanisms which express the two distinct phenotypes. We would welcome students who are interested to study partially migratory European blackbirds (Turdus merula) in the field at the breeding site in Germany and the overwintering site in France using radio telemetry and micro-logger technique and/or to conduct experiments in the lab under controlled conditions.
Keywords migration, life history strategies, control mechanisms, physiology, fitness, phenotype, genotype
Main advisor Jesko Partecke, MPIO Radolfzell

The social brain of insects

Abstract The vast ecological success of social insect societies is based mainly on division of labor and the specialization of their members. We aim to understand why individuals behave differently and how neural information processing promotes inter-individual variability found in behavior. To this aim, we investigate brain miniaturization and adaptations in the olfactory system of leaf-cutting ants; we study how bees and ants recognize nestmates and discriminate them from foes; and we search for the sensory basis of individual differences in thermal preference of brood tending social insects.
We use an integrative approach, including molecular tools, neurophysiological techniques and behavioral experiments to understand the underlying mechanisms of individual behavior and ultimately the resulting complex organization in social insects.
Keywords olfaction, thermo-reception, sensory ecology, neurobiology, social insects, self-organization
Main advisor
Christoph Kleineidam, University of Konstanz

Niche models in changing environments: ecologically informed movement models

Abstract Species distribution models (SDM) use the concept of ecological niche to model the utilization probability of landscapes based on observations of animals in the field. These models are hitherto static and often based on museum specimen or occasional field observations which they combine with environmental data of various quality as well as temporal and spatial resolution. In this project we would like to investigate the potential for using SDM for high quality movement data in combination with environmental data to introduce the concept of ecological niche in utilization models based on animal movement. The project will rely on a large data set on animal movement gathered by various collaborating scientists stored in and publicly available remote sensing data and conducted in collaboration with the DLR (German center for aeronautics and space). The ultimate goal of the project is to include ecological niche concept to understand and predict how animal movement is influenced by environmental change and thereby address questions around migration, individual decisions and the evolution of migration. The work requires highly developed skills in programming language R, dealing with large data sets and experience with the use of SDM.
Keywords MaxEnt, ENFA, comparative methods, utilization distribution models, movement ecology
Main advisor Kamran Safi, MPIO Radolfzell

Olfactory coding in the insect brain

Abstract Odors are coded as combinatorial pattners of olfactory glomeruli. While we have lerned a lot about these patterns, the fundamental logic of how neural networks process odor information in a behaviorally relavant manner still remain elusive. In this project, the PhD candidate will use 3-photon-microscopy to study neural networks in the honeybee and the fruit fly antennal lobe and in the mushroom bodies. The fundamental questions are: how does memory change neural networks, and how is odor identity and odor concentration coded?
The candidate is expected to have a strong background in neuroscience, be capable of performing microdissections, and have a background in physics, computation and programming, as well as data analysis. Activities involve: in-vivo optical imaging of calcium responses in the insect brain, development of new optical recording techniques, and behavioral experiments aimed at studying learning and memory.
Keywords olfaction, neural networks, neurobiology, honeybee, Drosophila
Main advisor
Giovanni Galizia, University of Konstanz

The importance of self-compatibility and auto-fertility of plants in novel environments

Abstract Self-compatibility and auto-fertility are likely to promote establishment and persistence of plants in novel environments, but empirical evidence is scarce. In this PhD project, we will test (1) whether invasiveness of alien plant species is hampered by pollen limitation (2) whether self-compatible and auto-fertile plant species are globally more invasive, and (3) whether novel environments can induce plastic changes in self-compatibility and auto-fertility. These questions will be addressed by using multi-species common garden experiments and meta-analysis. The successful candidate should have a background in experimental plant ecology, have strong statistical skills, and be fluent in English.
: breeding system, global change, invasive plants, mating system, pollinators
Main advisor Mark van Kleunen, University of Konstanz

Ecology and genomics of parallel speciation of cichlid fishes in Nicaraguan crater lakes

 Abstract The crater lakes in Nicaragua each contain small adaptive radiations of endemic cichlid fish.  The species in these lakes often look astonishingly similar (see Elmer and Meyer 2011). These cases of parallel evolution are the focus of research in the Meyer-Lab – and we are studying this phenomenon at different levels of biological organization.  We are looking for two Ph.D. students to join our team who are interesting in this from a (1) genetic (e.g., QTL-analyses) and genomic (e.g., comparative transcriptomics) perspective, and (2) an ecological/experimental viewpoint.  The ecological genomics work aims to discover the genetic basis of (parallel) adaptations and next the functional characterization of candidate genes. This will approach involves next-generation DNA sequencing technologies (Illumina and Roche FLX platforms) in the Genomics Center Konstanz and evo-devo work using transgenic model fish (e.g. zebrafish and medaka).
We also plan to conduct mark-recapture studies and other ecological work in crater lakes in Nicaragua and are looking for a Spanish-speaking student who would work for longer periods of time in Nicaragua.
Keywords sympatric speciation, parallel evolution, ecological genomics, evo-devo, transgenics, next-generation sequencing
Main advisor Axel Meyer, University of Konstanz

Speciation and genomics of cichlid fishes

Abstract Cichlid fishes in Africa and the New World are known for their immense species diversity and their record rates of speciation. We are interested both in the ecological processes that drive/permit speciation as well as the genetics and genomics of species differences. We would welcome students who are interested to study cichlid fishes in the field (East Africa or Nicaragua are our main field sites) and/or conduct comparative genomic work using next-generation DNA sequencing technology.
speciation, speciation genes, rates of speciation, genomics of species differences
Main advisor
Axel Meyer, University of Konstanz

The influence of health state on learning capacity in the honeybee Apis mellifera

Abstract Bees are being used as model animals to study learning and memory in a variety of labs around the world, helping us to understand learning ranging from basic, molecular mechanisms to cognitive capacities. It is known that health state impacts learning in all species where this has been studied so far, but the details are far from known. In this study, we will exploit the experimental amenability of the honeybee to study how diseases influence learning and memory.
In a first step, the learning rates of healthy honey bees have to be experimentally determined. To this end, a standardized apparatus will be developed and validated to measure learning performance in a reliable, quantitative way. Afterwards, colonies infected with different diseases such as nosemosis, varroatosis or foulbrood need to be tested for their learning abilities in order to get reference values. Because there is a high variability in learning rates of honey bees depending on time of year, time of day and several other ecological and physiological factors such as the bees’ satiation, these parameters have to be taken into account for the evaluation of learning capacities. Finally, a database including the available data on honey bee learning will be established.
The project combines behavioral analysis of honeybees, basic neuroscience and neurophysiology. Skills in physiology, neuroanatomy, programming, electronics and patience in ethological observations are required and/or will be developed.
Keywords learning, diseases, memory, behavior, neuroscience
Main Advisor Giovanni Galizia, University of Konstanz

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