Thomas Bugnyar, Dept. of Cognitive Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna


1. Emotional book-keeping in primates and birds

Who is a trustworthy cooperation partner in a given situation or on a long-term basis? How much can I rely on my friends, and when? Questions like these are at the core of human sociality and cooperation. They also present a central problem for any cooperative species, especially when individuals compete for social allies. The proposed project will investigate what factors guide the judgment of others as ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ cooperation partners in primates (e.g. common marmosets) and/or corvids (e.g. ravens). Traditional models centre on rational, cognitively explicit forms of social ‘book keeping’. The aim of the project is to test an often proposed but rarely tested alternative hypothesis: that the perception of others is based on social emotions and attitudes. The studies will combine physiological, behavioural and cognitive measures of emotions during cooperation experiments in which the degree of fairness is manipulated.

Tecumseh Fitch, Dept. of Cognitive Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna


1. Neural responses to music and language in nonhuman animals.  The project would involve fMRI with dogs and EEG with pigeons or dogs;  we would control the amount of exposure to musical and linguistic input.  Requires brain imaging data analysis and good understanding of musical and linguistic principles.

2. Bioacoustics of source and filter in carnivores and ungulates. Using the large larynx collection at the University of Vienna this project will explore the morphological determinants of call acoustics in 20 species in each of two major orders of mammals: carnivores and ungulates.  This research would require imaging with CT and MRI as well as use of our excised larynx laboratory; hypotheses derived from this work would be tested in playback studies for example with mongoose, cheetah, deer or cattle.

3. Artificial grammar learning in birds, primates and human infants.  Using formal language theory to structure the search space this project would analyze the pattern perception abilities of nonhuman animals and compare them to human adults and infants.  Would require knowledge of formal language theory, experimental design, and good at programming skills.

Leonida Fusani, Dept. of Cognitive Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna & Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology, Dept. of Integrative Biology and Evolution, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna


1. Learning to be attractive

Males of several avian species perform elaborate courtship displays that are often accompanyed by modification of the environment such as construction of bowers or clearing of courts. Studies on the importance of learning in this context have mostly focused on song, and little is known about the capacity of birds to learn how to build an attractive bower or to perform an attractive dance. The aim of this project is to study the development of elaborate courtship displays of a suitable species to discover how much learning is involved and how important it is in determining the reproductive success of the performer.

2. Relationships between vocal and spatial learning

Passerine birds have outstanding learning capacities in several domains. Best known are the vocal learning capacity of songbirds, and the spatial learning abilities of food-storing species. Interestingly, both cognitive functions are controlled by brain areas that incorporate new neurons in adulthood. The project aims at exploring whether vocal and spatial learning capacities are correlated in a same species and if they share common physiological and neurological backgrounds such as the sensitivity to steroid hormones and the incorporation of new born neurones. The project will require a trascendental approach combining behavioural, neurobiological, and neuroendocrinological methods, taking advantages of two very well known neurobehavioural systems.

Walter Hödl, Dept. of Integrative Zoology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna


1. From ecology to cognition: the study of spatial behavior and the underlying cognitive mechanisms in the poison frogs.

Our recent studies have revealed remarkable spatial orientation abilities in poison frogs Pašukonis et al. unpublished data) and that spatial learning plays a crucial role in the behavior of these small tropical frogs. Building on these findings, the PhD candidate will investigate the sensory basis and the cognitive mechanisms underlying the orientation in Allobates femoralis, a territorial frog with male parental care. This will be achieved by combining novel telemetry techniques in the field and controlled behavioral experiments in the laboratory. In 2012 a genotyped population of Allobates femoralis was successfully established on a previously unpopulated river island across the Nouragues Ecological Research Station in French Guiana. This closed population provides a unique opportunity to study animals in the field with a detailed knowledge of their life histories, e.g., age, spatial movements, relatedness. Furthermore, the island allows the testing of “naive” individuals from the mainland in a novel environment. Overall, this setup allows us to ask detailed questions about the effects of exploration and learning on spatial movements and will provide significant insights into amphibian spatial cognition. The experiments will focus on orientation behavior of males during tadpole transport (territorial males deposit their larvae in water bodies and afterwards home back to their territories). Specifically, the PhD candidate will use telemetry and translocation experiments to investigate the sensory basis of orientation and the individual spatio-cognitive flexibility. The tadpole deposition behavior will be further investigated with captive individuals at the University of Vienna. Specifically, the candidate will study the role of olfaction, active predator avoidance and active brood-partitioning in finding and choosing the deposition sites. Taken together, these experiments will provide detailed knowledge of behavioral flexibility and spatial cognition – topics hardly explored to date in amphibians.

Ludwig Huber, Messerli Research Institute, Unit of Comparative Cognition, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna


1. Vocal mimicry and movement imitation in parrots

When it comes to imitation (learning new skills by observation), birds constitute a paradox. On the one hand, this vertebrate class is the one with the highest proportion of species capable of copying auditory stimuli (songs and sounds). On the other hand, solid empirical evidence of movement imitation in birds is extremely rare. So what is the relationship between vocal mimicry and movement imitation? This PhD project would therefore test both vocal and movement imitation in two phylogenetically distant species of parrots, the kea (Nestor notabilis) and the budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus). 

2. Social tactics of free-ranging pigs

In this PhD project we will test the hypothesis – implicit in most theories of the evolution of advanced cognition – that socio-cognitive abilities become apparent in groups of social animals if they a) are kept in conditions similar to the natural environment and b) if they are forced to use those abilities in appropriate, challenging circumstances, such as in competitive foraging tasks. Pigs seem to be a perfect candidate. They show a number of features indicative of social complexity but as omnivores only modest technical skills. Importantly, to bring their true potential in the social domain to the front, we will conduct the studies on a group (of 40 free-ranging pigs (kept in semi-natural environments), living at the Haidlhof Research Station, where they (slowly) grew up, forage naturally, develop a natural group structure (sounder) and live for years.

3. Human-dog relationship: from behavior to functional brain imaging

Humans and dogs share a long period of close social interaction, shaping each other’s behavior. So far, only the behavioral aspect of this relationship has been investigated. With the advent of advanced, non-invasive imaging procedures, brain function related to this social interaction may be studied in vivo in both species, and without anesthesia even in dogs. Direct comparison of canine and human fMRI data will be achieved by tailored social cognition tasks and analysis methods optimized for comparative imaging. Access to a new 3T MRI scanner dedicated for comparative canine imaging will allow us to overcome restrictions in using a human scanner; it will also allow us to train dogs in most realistic conditions. A crucial aspect of this PhD project is the efficient but stressless pre-training of up to 30 dogs to meet the requirements of optimal behavior in the scanner (fully attentive, but motionless and relaxed). Successful candidates are therefore expected to have ample experience in both behavioral experimental studies of animal cognition and animal training (preferably in dogs).

Kurt Kotrschal, Dept. of Behavioural Biology, University of Vienna


1. How wolves and dogs see their worlds: Mental changes during dogification

Dogs are domesticated wolves living with humans since some 35 000 years. Recent data indicate that dogs are not simply the “nicer” wolves. In fact, “dogification” has resulted in a complex mosaic of mental and behavioural changes. It seems that the motivational/affective base of behaviour was mainly affected, as dogs have shifted their focus to interacting and cooperating with humans. With this PhD project we plan to draw a broad picture of mental and behavioural adaptations of dogs by comparing equally raised and kept wolves and dogs in a series of experimental paradigms, covering the functional domains of rest/sleep, task execution, as well as cooperating and competing with conspecifics or humans. We will measure behaviour and autonomic system modulation via salivary cortisol (by EIA), heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV; with the Polar ® HR monitor) – as proxies for context-specific motivation, i.e. “arousal” and attentiveness in the different contexts –  in the equally raised and kept wolves and dogs of the Wolf Science Center ( We predict different mental engagement of wolves and dogs in a variety of contexts will be manifest in different modulation of HR, HRV and salivary cortisol. Pilot data indeed, show that, during rest/sleep HR was lower, but HRV (indicating relative relaxation) was higher in wolves than in dogs. In training situations however, wolves had higher HR and lower HRV than dogs, but lower salivary cortisol. Results will allow a broad new view on the selection pressures which have turned wolves into dogs.

Claus Lamm, Dept. of Basic Research and Research Methods, Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna


1. Evolutionary foundations of the social brain: a comparative canine neuroimaging approach 
Recent years have provided increasingly detailed insights into the neural bases of human social emotions and cognition. However, our knowledge about these abilities remains incomplete without considering their evolutionary roots. While dogs are of special interest in this respect as they show advanced social skills, little is known about their neural underpinnings. One possible aim of the Ph.D. thesis could be to assess the brain activations of dogs and humans during tasks such as imitation, empathy and perspective-taking, and to compare them to humans engaging in similar tasks. Comparing dog and human brain activation in these experiments will test the hypothesis whether the social skills of dogs and humans are underpinned by similar neural processes, and thus may be rooted in similar neuro-cognitive functions. Another possible aim is to provide insights into human-dog interaction, and our understanding of how humans perceive dogs, and vice versa. To this end, experiments on human-dog interaction would need to be designed. Successful candidates are expected to have some background in brain imaging and neuroscience (in humans or in non-human animals), and/or in behavioral experimental studies of animal cognition (preferably in dogs). The project will also require training of dogs to lie in the scanner fully awake and without sedation. While the successful candidate is expected to contribute to this training, extensive support by a professional animal trainer will be provided. This project is directly connected to the one of Ludwig Huber on developing tailored methods for dog fMRI training.

Friederike Range, Messerli Research Institute, Unit of Comparative Cognition, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna


1. Causal understanding in wolves and dogs

In this project, we will investigate the effect of domestication on causal understanding, both in the physical and social domain, of wolves and dogs by testing them in various problem-solving tasks. The studies will be mainly carried out at the Wolf Science Center about 40 km north of Vienna.

2. Eavesdropping in wolves and dogs

Using wolves and dogs we will investigate if they take the prior actions of potential partners with a third party into account when interacting with them.  We will test various domestication hypotheses predicting differential behaviors of wolves and dogs in such social skills. The studies will be mainly carried out at the Wolf Science Center about 40 km north of Vienna and the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna.

Angela Stöger-Horwath, Dept. of Cognitive Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna


1. Acoustic information coding in mammal vocalizations

The Mammal Communication Lab, at the Department of Cognitive Biology, focuses at understanding mechanisms and the selective forces that shaped specific signals, skills and communication systems in mammals. Our main model species are African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephants, highly social mammals that combine a capacity for vocal learning with complex cognitive skills. We are seeking a highly motivated PhD candidate who is interested in studying elephant vocal behaviour, considering sound production, information content (potentially including endocrinological aspects of acoustic variation), as well as propagation and perception of socially relevant vocalization types in both elephant species. The specific topic is flexible and open to discussion. Research (on both species) can be conducted in the field and under captive conditions applying a multi-level methodological approach (including acoustic recordings and analysis, sound visualization methods, re-synthesis techniques and playback experiments). Candidates with experience in bioacoustics (including acoustic recording and sound analysis), fieldwork or elephant behavior will be considered stronger applicants. In addition, a driving license is required for fieldwork.

Sabine Tebbich, Dept. of Behavioural Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna


1. Mechanisms, components and promoters of innovation in birds and humans

One way that humans and other animal species can adapt to a changing environment is by inventing new solutions for environmental challenges,which are also called innovations (Laland and Reader 2003). But how exactly does a new form of action emerge? Which behavioural / cognitive components are involved? Why are some individuals, some populations or some species better at adapting and innovating? Inovativeness may also have evolutionary consequences. By innovating, animals may encounter new selective environments, which in turn may offer yet more novel opportunities. In this way, behavioural innovations can initiate an evolutionary runaway process that paves the way for phylogenetic radiation (Tebbich et al 2014). Recently I have proposed a framework for animal innovation that describes the interactions between mechanism, fitness benefit, and evolutionary significance, and which suggests an expanded range of experimental approaches. In doing so, we split innovation into factors (components and phases) that can be manipulated systematically, and which can be investigated both experimentally and with correlational studies (Tebbich et al. 2015).  

The aim of the proposed PhD- project is to combine approaches from biology, cognitive science and innovation studies to explore the bases of innovation and to identify the external (environmental) and internal (psychological and physiological) preconditions and components of behavioral innovations. We have access to several innovative animals model systems: Darwin’s finches, parrots (keas, goffin’s cockatoos) and corvids (New Caledonian crows and carrion crows).