Independent Researcher funded by: Project P-26556 (Der Einfluss eines exotischen Parasiten auf Darwinfinken)
I did my PhD in Vienna on tool use in the woodpecker finch followed by post doc positions at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Starnberg, University of Cambridge and University of St Andrews. The core of my research: (i) which ecological could be drivers of animal intelligence? and (ii) whether these factors select for specialised cognitive adaptations or general cognitive mechanisms. In order to address questions related to these two general topics I study animal behaviour on functional, ontogenetic, mechanistic and evolutionary levels. My model systems are Darwin’s finches and Corvids. Apart from my interest in basic research, I always had an interest in applied research related to conservation. Together with colleagues I conducted a systematic census of Darwin’s finches over the last decade, which revealed a dramatic decline of Darwin’s tree finches. We are currently investigating reasons for this decline and our research has already revealed that an introduced dipterian parasite plays a prominent role in the decline of the Darwin’s finches.
The aim of my current Elise Richter project is to investigate whether tool use evolved in conjunction with cognitive adaptations by comparing the performance of two distantly related tool-using bird species, the woodpecker finch (belonging to the Darwin’s finches) and the New Caledonian crow (member of the corvid family), in a series of experimental tasks with closely related species which are not using tools. The comparison between two bird families will allow comparing the patterns of divergence between both families. If tool use evolved in conjunction with domain-specific adaptations, we predict that the two tool-using species outperform their non-tool-using relatives only in the physical tasks but not in the general learning tasks. We have now completed the comparison on the Darwin’s finch species, and our first results provide no evidence for cognitive adaptations to tool use but indicate that in Darwin’s finches, the cognitive adaptations for tool use seem to have preceded the evolution of tool use.