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How to motivate a mouse to sing

Males often vocalize during courtship in a wide variety of taxa, including insects, amphibians, birds and mammals, but the courtship songs of male house mice are ultrasonic, and inaudible to human ears. Studying the ultrasonic vocalizations or USVs of mice therefore requires special microphones and spectrograms to visualize the characteristic features of different calls. Researchers from the Penn-Zala Group at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology (University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna) recently developed an improved method for automating the detection of mouse USVs, which they now used to investigate a way of inducing male mice to vocalize.

The article “Primed to vocalize: wild-derived male house mice increase vocalization rate and diversity after a previous encounter with a female” by Sarah M. Zala, Doris Nicolakis, Maria Adelaide Marconi, Anton Noll, Thomas Ruf, Peter Balazs, and Dustin J. Penn was published in Plos one.

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(Web editor, 14 December 2020)

White-backed woodpecker as an indicator of near-natural habitats in Europe

Ornithologists have used multilocus molecular data and species distribution models to study the phylogenetics and phylogeography of the white-backed woodpecker. The white-backed woodpecker is an indicator of near-natural forests, and has an important European occurrence in Austria's mountain forests. Its importance for nature conservation lies in this indicator function. Like the great spotted woodpecker, but with gaps, it is distributed over the whole of Eurasia and has developed some island forms in the Far East. Hans Winkler et al. had already shown in 2005 that the Okinawa woodpecker, which has long been incorrectly classified, is a direct relative of the white-backed woodpecker.

The researchers emphasize that although this species of woodpecker is not classified as endangered, the highest genetic diversity is found in the population in the Białowieża Forest in Poland (the last remnant of a primeval forest in the lowlands of Europe) and in the Carpathian forests. These natural areas protect the genetic diversity of the white-backed woodpecker populations - an indication of the importance of maintaining near-natural forests for biodiversity.

The article "Phylogeography of a widespread Palaearctic forest bird species: The White-backed Woodpecker (Aves, Picidae)" by Jean‐Marc Pons, David Campión, Giorgio Chiozzi, Antonia Ettwein, Jean‐Louis Grangé, Łukasz Kajtoch, Tomasz D. Mazgajski, Marko Rakovic, Hans Winkler and Jérôme Fuchs was published in the journal Zoologica Scripta.

(Web editor, 2 December 2020)

The ultrasonic songs of mice contain distinctive individual signatures

House mice emit complex ultrasonic vocalizations or USVs, which are above the range of human hearing. A recent study from the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology (University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna) found that the USVs emitted by wild male mice contain distinctive individual signatures that are stable over time. Their findings show that these signals potentially mediate individual recognition.

USVs are surprisingly complex at many levels of organization, and the researchers found signatures of individual identity at every level that they analysed, including emission rates, mean frequency and duration, the number of different types of USVs, and even the length of silent intervals between calls. Moreover, using a machine learning algorithm, they were able to assign approximately 90% of recordings to the correct individual.

The article "Ultrasonic courtship vocalizations of male house mice contain distinct individual signatures" by Maria Adelaide Marconi, Doris Nicolakis, Reyhaneh Abbasi, Dustin J. Penn, and Sarah M.Zala was published in Animal Behaviour.

(Web editor,  4 November 2020)

Out of Africa: migratory birds fly to Europe earlier and earlier

In response to climate change, the spring migration of many migratory birds is shifting ever further forward. However, according to a study presented by an international research team led by Ivan Maggini and Leonida Fusani from the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Comparative Behavioral Research at Vetmeduni Vienna , this change does not follow a uniform pattern. On the contrary, closer inspection reveals a complex picture: Essential for the start of the migration is the region of wintering. 

It is known from previous studies that migratory birds bring forward their spring arrival in European breeding areas due to climate change. In addition, those species that are less able to adapt their migratory time suffer a decline in their population in Europe. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the cause of their decline is the inability to adapt the timing of their migration.  Fusani and Maggini - in collaboration with an international research team on Ponza - analyzed the migratory periods of the 30 species most frequently counted on the island during the last 18 years. 

Climate change affects different living beings in many different ways. In Europe, the early spring favors an earlier appearance of insects, which in turn affects the breeding season of insectivorous birds. By breeding earlier, they ensure that they find enough food to feed their young. However, many migratory birds are not able to observe seasonally changing, favorable conditions in their European breeding areas because they spend the winter thousands of kilometers away in Africa. Their internal clock stimulates them to leave their winter quarters at the appropriate time. In the face of climate change, it is therefore increasingly a challenge to adapt departure times in such a way that migratory birds are offered the maximum possible food sources on arrival at their destination in Europe.

The article "Recent phenological shifts of migratory birds at a Mediterranean spring stopover site: species wintering in the Sahel advance passage more than tropical winterers“ by Ivan Maggini, Massimiliano Cardinale, Jonas Hentati Sundberg, Fernando Spina, and Leonida Fusani was published in PLOS ONE.

(Web editor, 7 October 2020)

Rainbowfish help to study the adaptability of species to climate change

As local temperatures rise, some animals and plants try to migrate to more favourable climatic regions. However, human activities, such as agriculture and urbanisation, are destroying and fragmenting habitats. Many species are unable to to migrate  to better habitats.

Those species with higher “adaptive resilience” are more likely to keep up with changes in climate and survive. An international team of researchers including Dr. Steve Smith, the Head of the Genetics Lab at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology, studied three similar species of rainbowfishes from different climatic regions of Australia: the subtropics, the desert and the temperate region.  The researchers found a strong association between genetic responses and heat tolerance. The sub-tropical variety of these fishes showed much greater adaptability to warming temperatures than the temperate species. The implications of the study can be extended to many non-migratory animals and plants under pressure due to climate change.

The article "Adaptation of plasticity to projected maximum temperatures and across climatically defined bioregions" by Jonathan Sandoval-Castillo, Katie Gates, Chris J. Brauer, Steve Smith, Louis Bernatchez, and Luciano B. Beheregaray was published in the journal PNAS.

(Web editor, 13 July 2020)

Golden-collared manakins: behavioural flexibility of an athlete

Humans and animals react to changes in the environment with behavioural flexibility that helps them to adapt to new situations and circumstances or to learn new behaviours. Judith Janisch, Elisa Perinot and Leonida Fusani from the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology at the Vetmeduni Vienna and the Department of Behavioral and Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna researched this aspect in connection with one of the most unusual mating behaviours in the animal kingdom - the courtship dance of Golden-collared manakins. They found that the birds maintain an exact sequence of jump sequences in their courtship dance, but have enough flexibility to adapt to a sudden change in the environment. The study also showed that the basis of this behaviour could be motor learning, which was first identified in connection with complex mating behavior.

The article "Behavioural flexibility in the courtship dance of golden-collared manakins, Manacus vitellinus" by Judith Janisch, Elisa Perinot, and Leonida Fusani was published in Animal Behaviour.

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(Web editor, 9 July 2020)


Farewell, Matteo Griggio - in memoriam

With great sadness we have to announce the loss of Matteo Griggio, scientist, friend and practically a family member of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology. Almost for a decade Matteo was part of the scientific team of the Institute. During his long stay at the KLIVV, he enjoyed Austria a lot, but in his heart, he was always Italian!  So he was very happy when he was finally able to return to Italy, where he obtained a position as Professor at his home University in Padua.

During his time at the KLIVV he very much contributed to making the Institute a flourishing scientific hot spot, and with his charming behaviour he also createe a nice social environment. Interested in answering specific question in behavioural biology, he took advantage of the facilities at the KLIVV for a number of experiments. Following his interests in many topics, he also worked in the field and explored many spots across the world from his home base at the Institute.

Matteo Griggio was an enthusiastic and passionate scientist through and through. His passion was behavioural ecology and, in particular, birds. He became well recognized in his field. In fact, enthusiasm and passion drove his entire live. Interested, open-minded and gracious he was beloved wherever he turned up.

Almost all his wishes came true, his dream job as a behavioural scientist in his beloved home town Padua, many students and cooperation partners to work with, his own house, and a dog…

Matteo was happy: “If I had to die - I had a wonderful life!”

We lost Matteo suddenly and unexpectedly - in his 44th year of life. On  14 May 2020 he passed away in his house in Padua, when his heart stopped working.

He will leave a big gap in science and in our hearts, but Matteo is not gone, his life´s work continues. Today his students are dispersed throughout the world, representing him and his ideas and thoughts.

Matteo, we miss you!

Un abbraccio, bye bye

Herbert, on behalf of the entire KLIVV Team

Sexual conflicts in ducks – an evolutionary arms race

Until now, the going assumption for ducks (Anatidae) was "large penis, forced copulation, large eggs". A current study led by Hans Winkler of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna has now been able to refute this hypothesis. The opposite actually seems to be the case: penis length and egg size correlate negatively, the larger the drake´s penis, the smaller the duck eggs. This suggests that the ducks´ evolutionary arms race with forced copulations on one side and anatomical countermeasures on the other cannot continue without restrictions.

The article "The role of female investment in a sexual arms race“ by Bernd Leisler and Hans Winkler was published in the Journal of Avian Biology .

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(Web editor, 27 April 2020)


Mice sing with long and complex calls when they are genetically unrelated to each other and reproduce faster

Mice often vocalize in the ultrasonic range when exposed to a conspecific or their odor, and these vocalizations are often assumed to attract mating partners, enhance courtship and mating success. A recent study by researcher of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology (Vetmeduni Vienna) now found that mice vocalize differently when their mating partner is genetically unrelated, compared to related partners. This study provides the first evidence that mice use different vocalizations depending on their genetic relatedness, and that their vocalizations can predict their subsequent reproductive success. First author Doris Nicolakis explains the practical relevance of this new finding: “Our results are useful for breeding. The UPS emission can be used to screen breeding pairs during their first contact and to anticipate their later latency for reproduction and reproductive success ... "  

The article "Ultrasonic vocalizations in house mice depend upon genetic relatedness of mating partners and correlate with subsequent reproductive success“ by Doris Nicolakis, Maria Adelaide Marconi, Sarah M. Zala, and Dustin J. Penn was published in Frontiers in Zoology.

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(Web editor, 20 April 2020)