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General Research

Our research is focused mainly on sexual selection, sexual conflict, and animal communication, and particularly the mechanisms and functions of courtship signals.

We mainly study wild house mice (Mus musculus), though our students also study stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) and other taxa, and especially in seminatural conditions.

Research Topics

Sexual Selection:  We study mate choice (inter-sexual selection), and we aim to better understand how individuals find and assess the quality and compatibility of potential mates, and the adaptive functions (fitness consequences) of non-random mating. We also study male-male competition (intra-sexual selection), including sperm competition, and sexual conflict.

Animal Communication:  We study a variety of aspects of communication, including how animals recognize individuals and kin (social recognition), and why animals often advertise with honest signals rather than cheating.

  • Chemical signals: Male mice produce a variety of pheromones that influence the behavior and physiology of conspecifics. We are studying the signaling functions of major urinary proteins (MUPs), which bind and transport volatile pheromones (Austrian Science Foundation grant, P24711-B21)
  • Ultrasonic vocalizations (USVs): Male mice emit complex vocalizations during courtship and copulation, and we are studying their signaling functions (Austrian Science Foundation grant, P28141-B25)
  • Sounds and pheromones: Our project aims to identify neural circuits controlling sexual imprinting and the integration of olfactory and acoustic cues that control mating preferences as adults (grant funded by the Human Frontier Science Program, grant)
  • Voice Prints: Individual Signatures and Recognition in Mice (Austrian Science Foundation (FWF grant)  

Evolutionary Biology and Medicine:  We study the evolution and select maintenance of genetic (MHC) diversity, host-pathogen interactions, stress biology (telomere dynamics), inbreeding depression, and other topics that have direct implications for medicine.

TV-Tipp: W wie wissen - ZDF 1

House mice love company and have complex social lives. Scientists have been researching the patterns according to which it works for a long time. An essential key to this is the mice's secret language. Behavioral biologists - including Doris Nicolakis and Ken Luzynski under the direction of Dustin Penn and Sarah Zala from the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna - have just made significant progress in decoding them.

On Sat, 07 November 2020 the German SWR TV-station brought a documentary about mouse song and scent communication in its series W wie Wissen. The programme, which is in German, can be viewed anytime in the TV-Thek


Leading scientists
Dustin Penn, group leader
Sarah Zala

Technical assistance and animal keeping

Teresa Klaus
Adelheid Sasse
Eva Strasser
Bettina Wernisch

PhD Students
Reyhaneh Abbasi
Kim Bora
Maria Adelaide Marconi
Doris Nicolakis
Maja Penn

Diploma and Master´s Students
Julia Cihak
Sophie Knöder
Friedrich Schneider
Hannah Schnoz
Simon Wölfl
Martina Zani

Bachelor Students
Laura Wemer

Master project possibilities

We are looking for motivated students with an interest in behavioural or evolutionary biology and offer the opportunity for

If interested, contact us.