The role of behavioural flexibility and innovation in adaptive radiation

Darwin’s finches show an exceptional array of unusual foraging techniques. This raised my interest in the role of behavioural flexibility and  behavioural innovations as a driver of evolution and adaptive radiation. Especially, learned behavioural traits have a high evolutionary potential, since learning enables immediate and adaptive responses to environmental changes (West-Eberhard 2003). Yet, behavioural flexibility and what it is composed of is still not clearly defined and only few empirical studies have tested related hypothesis. In a recent paper, we have explored the role of Darwin’s finches as a model for a test of the flexible stem hypothesis, which assumes that individual phenotypic plasticity sets the stage for evolutionary change within a lineage. Components of flexibility may range from neophilia to fast trial-and-error learning, extinguishing previously learned associations or efficient operant learning (Tebbich et al. 2010).

In my future research, I aim to increase our understanding of behavioural flexibility via learning with a theoretical and empirical approach.

In particular, I want to:

  • Identify components and underlying mechanism of flexibility and innovation
  • Develop behavioural tests that allow comparisons across taxa
  • Identify environmental factors that drive flexibility by comparing the flexibility of individuals from populations that are exposed to different environmental pressures 


Researcher: Sabine Tebbich