Leonida Fusani

Dept. of Behavioral and Cognitive Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna & Dept. of Interdisciplinary Life Sciences, Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna

1. Motor learning of courtship displays

Courtship includes often bizarre and elaborate displays where animals exhibit ornaments – i.e. modified and brightly coloured feathers - while performing ritualized movements. Many of the displayed traits are rather static, for example feathers are grown during periodic moult, whereas other undergo seasonal changes and are fully developed only during the breeding season. Courtship behavior is typically shown only in the initial phases of sexual interactions and may involve complex sequences of repeated motor patterns. There is increasing evidence that the coordination of series of motor patterns composing the full courtship is obtained via motor learning. Juvenile males of many species of lekking birds such as manakins and bowerbirds are often seen observing adult males, rehearsing rudimentary versions of the display, and a few studies have demonstrated that motor learning plays a role in the establishment of a display choreography. The new project will build on ongoing work conducted in Central America and Australia and will be based on longitudinal studies of the behavior of individual male birds to understand if and how components of the courtship are learned from or with the guidance of other individuals.

2. Comparative aesthetics and multimodal signalling

Many animal signals are multimodal in that they include components that occupy different sensory channels. Typical examples are the parades or dances of a number of insect and bird species, where acoustic and visual signals are combined. Despite some theoretical interests in the last decades and a few empirical studies in recent years, the function of multimodality remains mostly unknown. Among currently theories we found those that advocate that multiple concurrent signals are redundant and act as back-up signals in case communication in one channel is disrupted; that they amplify each other; that they induce increased attention in the receiver. A few studies, however, suggest that multiple signals may combine to produce an integrate signal that could be object of evaluation by the receiver. In this perspective, we have started working on a biological concept of aesthetics to explore whether the holistic evaluation of elaborate signals involve similar neural processes in different species. The new project will develop from ongoing research with domestic doves and humans for which we are developing innovative testing protocols.