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News archive 2013

Measuring up – tree sparrows recognize foreign eggs in their nest by colour and shape

Many birds have reason to worry that the eggs in their nest might not be their own: birds often deposit eggs into other nests and it is not easy for parents to tell their eggs from others. Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna have discovered that tree sparrows can recognise eggs deposited by other tree sparrows but do not always reject them. The results are published in the online journal Plos One.

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(Web editor 10 December 2013)

Baking for a cause - Department success at the baking contest BackVETbewerb 2013

The 2013 "BackVETbewerb" (baking contest) took place on 3 December at the Vetmeduni Vienna.  Staff and students put their baking skills to the test for a good cause:  The proceeds from sale of the delicious creation will benefit the aid projects of  Veterinarians without Borders (VSF) in East Africa.  The Department of Integrative Biology and Evolution scored twice:  We were awarded 1st prize in the category "organisational unit with the most participants", and the superb sweet creations cakes baked by ethologist Michaela Thoß (here with Rector Sonia Hammerschmid and other winners) won 2nd prize!

(Web editor 5 December 2013)

Scent marking - the mammalian equivalent of showy plumage

The smell of urine may not strike people as pleasant, but female mice find it as attractive as cologne. Kerstin Thonhauser and colleagues at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology have confirmed that male house mice that excel at scent-marking their territory also have more offspring. This is likely because mouse females are able to infer mate quality from the males’ scent mark deposits. The findings are reported in the Journal of Animal Behaviour, and the article was ranked 4th-most discussed article in Animal Behaviour (Altmetrics Top Rated Articles).

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(Web editor 31 October 2013)

Getting rid of unwanted visitors

Gut-dwelling bacteria are attracting increasing attention, particularly those associated with human diseases. Helicobacter pylori is found in the stomach of humans, where it may cause chronic gastritis and gastric ulcers, although the majority of infections are asymptomatic.  The bacterium has been associated with humans since over 100,000 years ago, when it first infected San hunter-gatherers. An international consortium coordinated by Yoshan Moodley at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology has discovered that the Baka pygmies of Cameroon, another community of hunter-gatherers, have a surprisingly low rate of Helicobacter infection. The findings are reported in the online journal PLOS Genetics and cause us to question how the bacteria are maintained in human populations.

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(Web editor 20 September 2013)

Journal Emu Special Edition on Malurids as model organism for evolutionary research

The journal Emu - Austral Ornithology published a special issue on the model organism Malurids (Maluridae: Insights from a Model System) in August 2013.  KLIVV researchers Herbert Hoi, Matteo Griggio, and Katharina Mahr, together with colleagues from Flinders University in Australia contributed the article "When subspecies matter: resident Superb Fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus) distinguish the sex and subspecies of intruding birds".  They found out that Superb Fairy-wrens, a species  in which both males and females sing a solo song throughout the year, can recognize genetically different subspecies by their song.  

(Web editor 4 September 2013)

The more the merrier – Promiscuity in mice is a matter of free choice

In many species, females frequently mate with more than one male. Kerstin Thonhauser and colleagues from the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology aimed to find out why. In experiments on wild house mice, they discovered that females mate with multiple males when they have the opportunity to choose their mates freely. Sexual coercion by males could be ruled out as a factor. The results were published in the Journal of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

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(Web editor 30 August 2013)

I know that song: Superb fairy-wrens estimate brood parasite risk by ear

Becoming a parent is not easy.  Even before the young hatch Australian Superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus) has to guard against the possibility of having a proverbial cuckoo´s egg placed into their nest.  In their breeding area two brood parasites may displace their own chicks, with the principal danger coming from the Horsfield´s bronze cuckoo (Chalcites basalis).  So how do the birds ward off brood parasites?  Together with scientists from Flinders University (Australi), a team around Herbert Hoi of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology carried out experiments to gage the reaction of Superb fairy-wrens to different levels of „cuckoo risk“.  They played back the songs of three different cuckoo species during breeding season.  Only two of these cuckoos normally occur in the same breeding area.  They found out that Superb fairy-wrens react to cuckoo songs with alarm calls.  It became clear that they can distinguish between different species, since their reaction was much weaker when the researchers played songs of the less „dangerous“  Shining bronze cuckoo  (C. lucidus) and the Little bronze cuckoo (C. minutillus).  The wrens showed no reaction at all to the songs of the Striated thornbill (Acanthiza lineata), who also lives in the area but is not a brood parasite.

The results were published on 22 May 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.

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(Web editor 11 June 2013)

Oh brother, where art thou? Sticklebacks prefer to be with relatives

Many animals are able to discriminate between related and unrelated individuals but how they do so has proven remarkably difficult to understand. Joachim Frommen and colleagues at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna have investigated the issue using the three-spined stickleback and its shoaling preferences as a model system. It turns out that the fish prefer kin to unrelated conspecifics, regardless of how familiar they are with individual shoal members. The results indicate that level of familiarity does not affect the stickleback's ability to recognize kin. Recognition based on phenotype matching or innate recognition thus seems to be the overruling mechanism when it comes to choosing members of a peer group.

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(Web editor 7 June 2013)

The scoop on bird poop: the evolving diversity of microbial life in bird guts

Gut bacteria are known to have a central role both in human and in animal health.  Animals acquire different bacteria as they age but how the microbial communities in the bodies of wild animals change over time is not well understood.  Wouter van Dongen and colleagues at the Vetmeduni Vienna have examined the gastrointestinal bacteria of chick and adult black-legged kittiwakes. Surprisingly, the microbial assemblages of chicks and adults generally differ greatly, with only a few types of bacteria in common.  The findings are published in the journal BMC Ecology.

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(Web editor 31 May 2013)

Cloudy water: algae blooms affect fish behaviour

Algae blooms, which can be caused by eutrophication (increased levels of nutrients in the water, e.g. due to runoff of fertilizers and sewage into aquatic systems), drastically influence the ecology and behaviour of aquatic organisms. Effects on mate choice and the interaction of predators and prey have been observed.  Social behaviour changes are less well understood.  Stefan Fischer and Joachim Frommen from the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology investigated the impacts of algae blooms on the well-known preference of three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) to shoal with larger groups of sticklebacks when given a choice.  They showed that focal fish that could choose between two shoals of different sizes chose to spend significantly more time near the larger shoal when the water was clear, but in turbid water containing green algae the fish showed no significant preferences and tended to move less between shoals.  Eutrophication-induced algae blooms may have the potential to alter social decisions of sticklebacks, and this behaviour change might influence entire populations and even lead to changes in the structure of the social system.  The results are published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

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(Web editor 22 May 2013)

Who's your daddy? - Infidelity and paternity in reed warblers

Many species pair for life, or so the story goes. In reality, there is quite a bit of cheating going on. Both male and female partners may have “affairs” outside the pair bond.  In such cases, how is a male to know if the chicks he´s feeding are really his? Depending on the species, males have different strategies. They may try to ensure paternity by increased surveillance and fighting off the competition, or by having more frequent sex with their long-term partners. Others react by physically punishing unfaithful females or by reducing parental care once the – potentially unrelated – offspring has arrived. Herbert Hoi and colleagues of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, together with scientists from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, carried out experiments with reed warblers to see how a situation of potential infidelity affects later paternal investment in the chicks and whether it does in fact lead to extra-pair mating.  They found that the males aggressively try to chase off competitors and to keep potentially “double-dealing” females in line. But whether or not they manage, they turn out to be caring fathers once the babies are born. 

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(Web editor 16 May 2013)

Open access research prize for KLIVV team

The open access publisher BioMed Central has awarded the second prize in the category Animal Science, Veterinary Research and Zoology of the BioMed Central Annual Research Awards to Katharina Mahr, Matteo Griggio, Michaela Granatiero und Herbert Hoi for their paper „Female attractiveness affects paternal investment: experimental evidence for male differential allocation in blue tits”.

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(Web editor 10 Apr. 2013)

Sea level rise: Jeopardy for terrestrial biodiversity on islands

Model calculations predict a sea level rise of about one meter by the end of this century and of up to five and a half meters by the year 2500.  Until now there are few studies on the potential impacts of a rising sea level on biodiversity.  Florian Wetzel and colleagues of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna together with Walter Jetz of Yale University, USA have now published modeling results for the Southeast Asia and Pacific regions.  Their results show that many terrestrial vertebrates are vulnerable to sea level rise and the risk of extinction is highest for endemics found only on certain islands and already endangered species.  Their findings are published online in the journal “Global Change Biology”.

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(Web editor 19 March 2013)

Risk management in fish: how cichlids prevent their young from being eaten

For a variety of reasons, many humans choose to adopt children.  More surprisingly, adoption is fairly widespread in the animal kingdom, even though it would seem to counteract the basic premise of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which suggests that animals should raise as many of their own offspring as possible.  Understanding the rationale for adoption has challenged theorists for generations.  Franziska Schaedelin and colleagues at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna now describe a new approach to the problem.  The scientists present findings that suggest parents of fish exchange young with other parents to reduce the chances that their entire brood will be predated.  The results are published in the current issue of the journal “Behavioral Ecology”.

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(Web editor 19 Mar. 2013)

Watch and learn: zebrafish can improve their food foraging strategy through social learning

The zebrafish (Danio rerio) is increasingly becoming an important model species for studies on the genetic and neural mechanisms controlling behaviour and cognition.  Sarah Zala and Ilmari Määtänen of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna tested whether social interactions with trained peers (“conditioned demonstrators“) enhance the ability of “naïve“ (unconditioned) zebrafish individuals to learn an associative foraging task. They found that the untrained zebrafish were able to improve their foraging behaviour by learning from their conditioned tank mates.  This means that zebrafish use social learning for finding food. The research is described in the January 2013 edition of the international journal “Naturwissenschaften”.

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(Web editor 28 Jan. 2013)