Ecophysiology and population ecology

Djungarian hamster in winter fur
Photo of Djungarian hamster in winter fur 1
Asian elephants
Photo of Asian elephants 2
Wild boar females
Photo of wild boar females 3
Edible dormouse
Photo of edible dormouse 4
European hare
Photo of European hare 5

Team leader:  A.Univ.Prof. Dr.rer.nat. Thomas Ruf  6

Research in this group is focused on the physiology/life-history nexus. In other words, we aim to understand how physiological mechanisms and constraints determine life-history tactics and, ultimately, population dynamics. Our physiological research centers around energy metabolism in mammals and birds, and its adjustment to environmental conditions. One central topic of our studies is the mechanisms involved in seasonal acclimatization of animals. This includes seasonal adjustments of energy expenditure, heart rate, body temperature, or the size and function of alimentary organs in a variety of study animals ranging from small rodents to elephants. In a second, related research topic we investigate mechanisms and physiological limits that govern both extremely low rates of metabolism, e.g. during deep hibernation, and maximum sustained rates of energy turnover, as their occur, for instance, in lactating females.

These fields of research inevitably lead to questions concerning feeding ecology. In this context, we are particularly interested in dietary components that may constitute limited resources, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids. We also study the capabilities of animals to cope with both endogeneous and exogeneous stressors, and how an animal’s physiological responses may affect its longevity and lifetime reproductive success. Finally, we investigate how genetically determined or environment-dependent differences in physiological traits (i.e., physiological phenotypes) affect population dynamics.

Important animal models include hibernators (marmots, dormice), hares and rabbits, as well as large ungulates (deer, chamois, ibex and wild boar) that are studied both in the field and in enclosures. We also use laboratory animals (e.g. laboratory mice and hamsters) to address specific questions under closely controlled conditions. Many of our studies address questions concerning the genetic basis of physiological traits, which has led to collaborations with the institute’s Ecological Genetics 7 group.

Similarly, we frequently interact and collaborate with the Applied Ecology & Conservation Medicine 8 group since physiological traits, such as dietary preferences and requirements, can have a strong impact on wildlife management measures.  Further, our research heavily relies on the services  9provided by the department’s Chemistry lab 10 (analyses of tissue and diet samples) and the Biomedical Engineering lab 11, which provides custom-made biotelemetry devices that are essential for the monitoring of physiological variables in free-ranging animals.


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