Principal researcher: Magdalena Zagalska-Neubauer

Period: 2014-2017

One of the most important manifestations of animals life is their ability to communicate effectively with each other. Morphological, behavioural or physiological characteristics are signals sent by the sender toward the recipient via different, often complementary, communication channels: chemical, tactile, visual and acoustic. Regardless of which channel is used in a communication process, the essential intention of a sender is to modify behaviour of the signal’s recipient in a manner beneficial to himself, while the recipient is trying to evaluate the received information and achieve maximum benefit from the interaction. In many animal species, particularly birds, visual and acoustic signals play a crucial role in both mate choice and interactions between individuals of the same sex. Through visual and acoustic signals, territorial males inform neighbours and intruders about their quality, motivation to defend the territory, and/or social status. Sexually selected traits often signal quality or motivation and form specific ‘status badges’. Such signals underlie intra- and intersexual communication and are central to the signalling theory. The signalling theory, to which the project refers, proposes that plumage traits or song characteristics have evolved to signal individual quality and the ability of individuals to win agonistic encounters. It is also possible that some of these signals indicate genetic potential of individuals. In general, signalling dominance brings benefits to the signaller and the receiver, as intrasexual competition over limited resources like territory, food and mates is often intense. Thus, mechanisms that settle conflicts without physical aggression are expected to be favoured by selection. Costs, benefits, and resultant fitness trade-offs are thought to maintain reliable status badges as evolutionarily stable signals. The main goal of our project is to evaluate phenotypic signals and to assess their relationship with evolutionarily important genes in male-male competition in the chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs). This small passerine has plumage with conspicuous white wing epaulettes, which potentially serve as quality indicators. It has been shown that larger epaulettes correlate with more aggressive behaviour and it is possible that honestly indicate male quality. Quality assessment based on the size of male epaulettes is possible only when individuals are well visible and in sight. For medium and long distance communication males use also the acoustic communication channel. The repertoire of chaffinch songs ranges only from 1 to 6 types of songs (usually 2-3 types). Each song consists of a trill and an ending song flourish. It has been shown that males react more aggressively to a song containing a more complex trill, which may suggest that trill complexity indicates male quality. Therefore, we can expect that signalling of male quality in the chaffinch acts in two dimensions - acoustic and visual, and the information transmitted by these two channels of communication could be correlated with each other. We hypothesise that epaulettes and song in the chaffinch are reliable signals of quality in male-male interactions during thebreeding territory defence. It is believed that it is only multiple ornaments that reflect different aspects of individual quality and allow a more accurate assessment of quality. To determine the relationship between aggressive behaviour and quality in social signalling in male chaffinches, we will measure phenotypic characters, assess MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex) genes polymorphism and parasite load. We expect that males with larger epaulettes and more complex song would be less infected with malaria-like parasites and show a higher MHC polymorphism

Principal researcher: Juan Carlos Senar

Period: 2009-2013

Although the evolution of sexual signalling has recently attracted a great deal of interest in evolutionary biology, several key points remain unresolved. The first one relates to how signal reliability is maintained. Although several mechanisms have been suggested, the topic is highly controversial. One of the main aims of the project is to investigate experimentally, mechanisms to maintain the honesty of sexual and social signals. A second key unresolved topic relates to understanding what kind of benefits signal receivers may acquire and which is the information encoded in signals, especially from a genetic point of view. Our aim is to relate the major histocompatibility gene complex (MHC) to plumage coloration and bird song, which can have inferences for the good-genes hypothesis. A third key unresolved topic relates to the evolution of multiple signals of male quality. If signals can encode different information and these are uncorrelated, it is reasonable to predict that different units of information can be signalled by different ornaments/armaments. Our aim is to provide experimental data on how different patches of plumage colours within an individual or even different qualities of the same patch (i.e. hue and chroma) can provide different units of information. Because individual differences in social behaviour (i.e. personality) may have consequences for mate and group companion choice and sexual/social signalling, we predict that partners should develop preferences for personalities that maximize reproductive output and individual fitness. Hence, our final aim is to relate variation in plumage coloration and song, within the framework of multiple signals, to avian personalities and hence, to the evolution of strategies and signalling.


Principal researcher: Miguel Ferrer

Period: 2014-2015

The aim of this project is to develop systems for the acquisition of data and monitoring of wildlife based on unmanned aircraft systems (UASs). We will focus on two areas of application:

-Wildlife census and monitoring. UASs offer a great opportunity to substantially improve the process of wildlife monitoring and surveillance by being a cost-effective method, with lower disturbance and higher accuracy than traditional approaches, particularly in remote or difficult-to-access areas. The major drawback of this approach is related to the analysis of the data since manual processing of a large number of images to detect individuals is a time consuming task. Thus, our aim will be to implemente an automatic recognition system of wildlife based on data acquired by UASs.

-Wildlife tracking and location. The deployment of electronic devices on wildlife is widely extended and has multiple applications; it allows to record the movements of the marked individuals, serves to locate their feeding and breeding areas or permits registering multiple activity and physiological parameters. VHF radio tagging and gps logging devices are nowadays two of the most common wildlife marking systems, but tracking and (re) capturing animals maybe challenging and is both time-consuming and expensive. The use of UASs to automatically track and locate animals is a promising solution by having a great potential to reduce cost and efforts in this research field.