Behavioural ecology of animals in natural and urban habitats

Within the Behavioural Ecology chair group we supervise MAS and MBI Bachelor theses on a broad range of topics covering behaviour of wild life animals, companion animals and of farm animals. If students want to develop own projects dealing with animal behaviour we can support them in developing such projects but in addition we provide a list of topics/projects suitable as Bachelor projects or theses.

Vocal communication in songbirds

Birdsong is among the best studied signalling systems in animals. In most species in the temperate zones, only the males sing, mainly to advertise and defend a territory and to attract a female. Song can reflect a range of different traits, such as motivational traits, qualitative traits, or personality traits. Moreover song is a long range signal and thus has evolved under the acoustic constrains of the habitat. Birds sing mainly during the breeding season and recordings often are time consuming to obtain. A large existing set of recordings, however, will allow students to become familiar with theories of communication, the function of signals and with methods in acoustic analyses. Project possibilities can cover literature work on various specific questions related to vocal communication, analysis of existing recordings of great tits with known personality, or of vocal interactions in nightingales, analysing bird songs in relation to the habitat (environmental adaptation of song). Projects could also involve obtaining and analysing own recordings.

Songbird behaviour

Personality traits or social interactions. There exists close collaboration between the BHE chair and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Wageningen (NIOO-KNAW) and this allows students to contribute to recently performed or ongoing projects with songbirds. Details on the available projects need yet to be determined (so, in due course, contact Marc Naguib to find out the precise possibilities), but for an impression of the type of work that could be done see below.

Animal personality and pair behaviour

Animals differ characteristically in behavioural traits and such repeatable and consistent difference are commonly referred to as personality traits. Personality traits have a genetic component and the personality and personality-differences between mates may affect breeding behaviour and reproduction. Observations of breeding pairs of personality type individuals at the NIOO will allow students to determine personality dependent differences in a pair context and to collect observational data allowing to link social behaviour of personality types birds to their breeding performance. Observations are possible only during the pre-breeding and breeding season (March to May). Observational studies related to other questions may be possible also at other times of the year.

Animal personality and cognition.

Animals often have to learn cues of their environment for successful foraging, survival and reproduction. Learning is thus subject to strong selection pressure. Environmental cues can also change so that individuals have to be attentive to such changes and re-learn new associations. Learning experiments often require innovative approaches as the tasks have to have a sufficient level of difficulty to reveal individuals differences in performance. This project involves literature surveys of methods used in animal learning and/or development and tests of learning devices ( by the student) using great tits and possibly laying hens as models.

Mate choice and social interactions (only performed for songbirds).

Animals have to make decisions in various social contexts, such as during mate choice or in competition with same-sex competitors. Females chose males based on certain traits but females also vary substantially in their preferences. Likewise males display their competitive ability to other males. The nature and function of signalling depends on the context as well as on the characteristics of the males involved. Using video recordings of mate choice experiments as well as of interactions between males of personality-typed great tits and of blue tits in a competitive context allows the student to learn about signalling and decision mating as well as to quantify behavioural traits in experimental contexts.