Behavioral endocrinology and genetics 

In our Department, several researchers study the interactions between hormones and behavior. Many aspects of behavior including sociality, aggressivity, seasonality, courtship, and migration are controlled by hormones. In turn, behavioral interactions affect hormone status by inducing responses of the endocrine system. Typical examples are the secretion of corticosteroids in response to stressful events, controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and the positive feedback between territorial aggression and testosterone, controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis.

Besides steroid hormones such as corticosteroids, estrogen and androgen, we investigate hormones linked to photoperiodism and seasonality (melatonin; Fusani), affiliation and bonding (oxytocin and mesotocin; Wallner and Fusani), and regulation of food intake (orexic and anorexic hormones; Millesi and Fusani).

We are also interested in the hormonal regulation of metabolism and foraging, and how this is influenced by nutritional factors such as different types of fatty acids, antioxidants, and specific carbohydrates (Millesi). In this context, two main research lines are hibernation in mammalian species (Millesi) and avian migration (Fusani).

Although focused on physiology of behavior, our research relies on a range of tools and reaches out to other disciplines inducing epigenetics, genomics, and gene expression, for example to analyze molecular biological stress markers like mtDNAs and non-coding micro RNAs. (Wallner)

All the above activities are supported by our endocrinology laboratory [insert link], which encompasses classical and modern endocrinological methods such as radioimmunoassay (RIA) and ELISA, which are validated for a range of sample types from blood and tissues to non-invasive samples such as saliva, urine, and faeces.  

Individual differences: behavioral plasticity and consistency

Both humans and animals have ‘personality’ measured as consistent response profiles to external stimuli. Our research groups study when, how and why such individual differences occur, as well as evolutionary implications of population-level changes in the proportion of different personalities. For example, a population composed of mostly shy individuals is expected to show different response patterns under conditions of rapid environmental change compared with a group of bold risk-takers.

Kleindorfer’s Lab developed rapid field assays that measure all five personality axes in birds, which her group studies in Darwin’s finches and their main predator, the short-eared owl, on the Galapagos islands. Understanding how personality phenotypes in predator and prey interact to shape community structure is a core research area, as well as testing the role of personality for foraging tactics and survival in the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis and the descendent Konrad Lorenz Greylag Geese (KLF). Bugnyar’s lab measures personality effects on social integration in ravens and capuchin monkeys.

There are also large individual differences in all aspects of language processing and in their underlying neural underpinnings. The Brain and Language Lab headed by Narly Golestani explores these questions in the context of projects on language aptitude (e.g. giftedness for language), multilingualism (e.g. how does the brain change when learning new languages? How does the learning impact domain-general cognition?), and language disorder (what predicts compensation in dyslexia? What predicts resilience to stroke-induced aphasia?). Related to this, we also tackle the nature-nurture question, in the context of work on heritability (twin and intergenerational studies on the brain and behavior), molecular genetics, and in studies on behavioral and neural plasticity.

Behavioral adaptations: from hibernation and migration to species conservation

In the seasonal environment of temperate zones, winter presents severe energetic challenges to endothermic animals, such as mammals and birds. Low ambient temperatures increase thermoregulatory costs in a period with extremely limited food availability. The main strategies to escape this energetic bottleneck are either to accumulate energy reserves prior to winter and reduce energy expenditure, or, as very common in birds, to migrate to warmer areas in autumn and return to the breeding ground in the following spring. Both strategies require complex behavioral and physiological adaptations with regard to the timing of seasonal activities and energy allocation. 

Hibernation is a highly efficient energy-saving strategy. It is characterized by multiday torpor bouts, during which body temperature, metabolic rate and other physiological processes are profoundly reduced. Nevertheless, hibernating small mammals require sufficient energy reserves and a rather strict annual schedule. Seasonal adaptations in obligate, fat-storing hibernators like European ground squirrels and in food-hoarding Common hamsters, representing a more flexible hibernation strategy are studied in Eva Millesi’s lab. Research questions include, reproductive timing and output, energy allocation strategies, hormonal regulation and genetic factors.  

Birds migrating from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds and vice versa undergo extreme changes in their physiology and are exposed to a large array of environmental factors, including food availability, predation risk, and anthropic pressure. Leonida Fusani’s lab investigates how birds (and other taxa) cope with environmental challenges during migration but also other life history stages. Beside research on migration of Palearctic passerines, based on fieldwork in Italy and Morocco, we study other systems such as migratory adaptations of common quails in the laboratory and anthropic stress in seabirds and caimans in remote field locations. 



Fusani Lab

Millesi Lab



Behavioral interactions: between individuals and species

Social interactions are both a cause and consequence of life experience. We study the behavioral, physiological, genetic and cognitive mechanisms that shape individual- and group-level interactions across ecological and social contexts.

Bugnayr’s group studies the role of early life social environment for social integration into raven society, and also in relation to their movement patterns at small and large spatial scale. Wallner’s group studies hormonal mechanisms of social behavior in guinea pigs and primates and ….  Sumasgutner’s group studies human-animal conflict as well as predator-prey interactions also in urban ecological contexts…. Tebbich and Kleindorfer’s groups study parasite and host interactions… The KLF group studies leader-follower dynamics and social networks in greylag geese, and Frigerio’s group measures physiological mechanisms of social behaviour in greylag geese.

Social cognition and culture 

At our department, we study how individuals process, store, and apply information about other individuals and social situations and how behaviors are learned and transmitted through processes of social or cultural learning. Our research takes an integrative and comparative approach to the study of social cognition and culture. We combine methods from classical ethology, particularly in the Tinbergen/Lorenz tradition of field work, and experimental psychology, with its focus on rigorous experimental lab studies. With a broad comparative stance, we investigate social cognition and culture in a wide array of species, including various bird species and primates, including humans.

For example, Thomas Bugnyar studies (i) which abilities do individuals require to solve problems in daily life with others, (ii) what types of mental representation underlie these abilities and (iii) how are skills acquired and transmitted. His main model systems are corvids, such as common ravens and crows. Barbara Klump studies how a species’ ecology and social structure shape its natural behavioral repertoire and the spatial distribution of vocal and foraging traditions in parrots and corvids. Lisa Horn studies human children’s social behavior ‘in the field’, specifically children’s prosocial tendencies vary depending on their position in the social network and on in the identity of their interaction partners.



Bugnyar lab

Klump lab

Horn lab


Communication – Humans and other Animals 

Our research on communication has several strands, including animal bioacoustics and human language and music.

Bioacoustics is the study of animal sounds and vocal communication. The research of several groups in our department focuses on various aspects of bioacoustics including mammal sound production and perception (Stoeger, Fitch), bird acoustic communication (Kleindorfer, Bugnyar) and fish communication (Ladich). Together, our groups have a strong concentration of expertise and resources for acoustic recording and analysis, sound playback, and sound synthesis.

For example, Angela Stoeger performs playbacks of infrasonic rumbles to African elephants in the field, using a very large specialized infrasonic loudspeaker. Sonia Kleindorfer uses an acoustic video camera to study how individual voices of graylag geese form a chorus to coordinate the birds’ movements through their environment. Friedrich Ladich uses a combination of hydrophonic recordings and playbacks to investigate links between fish sound production and hearing. Tecumseh Fitch runs excised larynx and x-ray audio-video labs allowing the physics and physiology of mammal vocal production to be studied in primates, carnivores, ruminants and other mammals. Thomas Bugnyar studies memory for individual voices in ravens, and has shown that ravens can recognize former friends by their voice alone after more than a year of separation. These and many other projects utilize both specialized devices and a shared basic infrastructure, along with our pooled expertise, to make Vienna an important center for bioacoustics research.

We also have an extensive set of courses and practicals on bioacoustics, ranging from introductory courses (e.g. here) to advanced courses and field-based practicals (

Language and Music are unique human attributes that both have an important biological component, and we study multiple aspects of these including neuroscience and development (Golestani) and evolution and comparative biology (Fitch). Together, our research takes an unusually broad approach to understanding the neural and cognitive mechanisms underlying language and music, and their evolutionary and biological bases.

In the context of projects embedded in the Evolving Language NCCR Narly Golestani’s lab works on how musical experience and/or aptitude may relate to language experience and/or aptitude. They explore these questions using very broad behavioral test batteries, together with a multimodal brain imaging (functional MRI, structural MRI and diffusion weighted imaging). They have recently developed a new music localizer, aimed at identifying brain networks underlying the processing of melody in music, and conversely, in the effortful processing of scrambled music. Genetic testing together with extraction of brain structural features underlying language aptitude will also help to pinpoint potential joint predisposition for music and for language aptitude. Other relevant projects include work on the intonational and rhythmic features underlying speech prosody; here we use model-based decoding on MEG data to understand how prosody assists speech comprehension by boosting the neural processing of syntactic information.

Tecumseh Fitch’s work is focused on the comparative analysis of the biology and evolution of speech, music and language.

For more information, see:

Stoeger: Mammal Communication Lab

Kleindorfer: Konrad Lorenz Research Center, Flinders University

Golestani: Brain and Language Lab, Vienna CogSci Hub webpage

Fitch: Bioacoustics Lab, Rhythm and Movement Lab



Bio-aesthetics and sexual selection

Empirical aesthetics involves the experimental investigation of preferences and emotional reactions to all sorts of stimuli (sounds, images, odors, etc). Bio-aesthetics is a relatively new field that attempts to ground findings in empirical aesthetics within a broader evolutionary and biological framework, and includes preferences for other individuals (e.g. as mates) as an important sub-topic.


For example, the work of Leonida Fusani’s lab has been interested in understanding elaborate courtship displays in bird species such as manakins (where males perform elaborate dances in “arenas”) or bowerbirds (where males build elegant structures in which they court females). He also looks at multi-modal displays, for example in ring doves, where the courtship “dance” involves both stereotyped movements and vocalizations. Work in Tecumseh Fitch’s lab has examined commonalities in how humans of different cultures produce visual art, or similarities in our musical preferences.


Fusani Lab