Behavioral Biology (Penn & Zala Lab)

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 1) 1
  • 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 2)

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.


Senior scientists
Dustin Penn 3, Group leader
Sarah Zala 4

Technical and Animal Care Assistants
Ursula Madlsperger
Teresa Klaus
Martina Krakhofer
Adelheid Sasse
Eva Strasser
Bettina Wernisch

PhD Students
Kenneth C. Luzynski 5
Maria Adelaide Marconi
Doris Nicolakis

Diploma and MSc Students
Sophie Dumfart
Anna Ennemoser
Natalie Fuhrmann
Diana Gliga

Student Opportunities

We are looking for motivated students with interest in behavioral biology, or evolutionary biology and offer the possibility of Master’s Projects 6. Contact us if interested.


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