Sabine Tebbich

Dept. of Behavioural and Cognitive Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna

1. The role of play behavior in promoting innovativeness in birds and humans

One way that humans and other animal species can adapt to a changing environment is by changing existing behavior; another way is by inventing new solutions for environmental challenges. Innovations can either be seen as a process that results in new or modified learned behavior or as an end product which are new behaviors, and/or use pre-existing ones applied in new contexts (1). But how exactly does a new form of action emerge? It is still difficult to explain the origin of complex behavioral patterns. This is particularly so in examples where incomplete sections of the behavioral sequence are not rewarded. Which behavioral / cognitive components are involved? Why are some individuals, some populations or some species better at adapting and innovating? In 2016 I have proposed a framework for animal innovation in which we split innovation into factors (components and phases) that can be manipulated systematically, and investigated experimentally (2).
The aim of the proposed PhD- project is to combine approaches from biology, cognitive science and innovation studies to explore the bases of innovation in animals and humans, and to identify the internal (psychological and physiological) preconditions and components of behavioral innovations. A particular focus may be on testing the role of social and non-social play in the emergence of novel behavior with an experimental approach. Exploration and, to an even greater extent, play are two motivational systems leading to novel combinations that can be repeated over and over again without the requirement for any extrinsic reward (2,3). Model organisms to test this hypothesis are children and Goffin's cockatoos and other parrot species which are especially playful and highly innovative (4).


1. Laland, K. & Reader, S. (2003) Animal innovation: an introduction. In Animal Innovation (ed. S. Reader & K. Laland), pp. 3-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press

2. Tebbich, S. Griffin AS, Peschl MF, Sterelny K. From mechanisms to functions: an integrated framework of animal innovation Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371: 20150195 DOI:10.1098/rstb.2015.0195

3. Bateson, Patrick. (2014). Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation. Animal Behavior and Cognition. 2. 99. 10.12966/abc.05.02.2014.

4. Auersperg, A. M., Van Horik, J. O., Bugnyar, T., Kacelnik, A., Emery, N. J., & von Bayern, A. M. (2015). Combinatory actions during object play in psittaciformes (Diopsittaca nobilis, Pionites melanocephala, Cacatua goffini) and corvids (Corvus corax, C. monedula, C. moneduloides). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 129(1), 62.

2. Early life stress and behavioral flexibility

Growing evidence suggests that social and ecological challenges experienced early in life can influence behavioral flexibility by shaping mechanisms of motivation and cognition during ontogeny (1-4). These ontogenetic effects might explain to a large extent the inter-individual variation in flexibility found in most animal species (e.g. reviewed in 3). An important mediator between early life experiences and later life cognitive performance is the vertebrate stress axis; exposure to early-life stressors may result in the persistent shaping of stress-axis reactivity, which in turn impacts the development of cognitive abilities and behavioral flexibility (4). The physiological stress response of vertebrates is an adaptive and highly efficient mechanism to cope with unpredictable, stressful situations as it mobilizes extra energy.
However, repeated or long-lasting disturbance will result in chronic activation of the stress axis, which may impair flexibility by shifting behavioral activation to inhibition (e.g. 5). The threshold between an adaptive "emergency" activation of the stress response and a harmful, pathological activation depends on the environmental conditions and the frequency and duration of activation (6). Individuals in poor nutritional condition are more susceptible to reach the emergency threshold that induces the onset of an adaptive stress response (6). It is puzzling, however, that individuals living under affluent conditions may remain in a chronic (and pathologically) activated state of the stress axis without actually reaching the emergency threshold (7).
Understanding of how early-life stress and nutrition, respectively, impact stress reactivity and how the latter affects behavioral flexibility is an interesting research objective but also highly relevant for the welfare of farm animals. Thus, the domestic pig is an ideal model organism for this topic as they have a complex social system, are fast learners but are often kept under poor condition in a high nutritional state. The influence of early life experience on stress reactivity and behavioral flexibility can be tested by varying husbandry (industrial animal husbandry vs. socially and environmentally enriched husbandry). The interaction between nutrition, stress reactivity and flexibility can be tested by varying long- and short-term stress levels in test groups with different nutritional states.


1. F. Bannier, S. Tebbich, B. Taborsky, (2017) Early experience affects learning performance and neophobia in a cooperatively breeding cichlid. Ethology 123, 712-723.

2. C. Sandi, M. T. Pinelo-Nava, (2007) Stress and memory: behavioral effects and neurobiological mechanisms. Neural plasticity

3. J. Koolhaas, S. De Boer, C. Coppens, B. Buwalda, Neuroendocrinology of coping styles: towards understanding the biology of individual variation. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 31, 307-321 (2010).

4. B.S. McEwen, R.M. Sapolsky (1995) Stress and cognitive function. Current opinion in Neurobiology 5, 205-216

5. J. C. Wingfield, L. M. Romero (2001) Adrenocortical responses to stress and their modulation in free- living vertebrates. Comprehensive Physiology

6.B. S. McEwen, J. C. Wingfield, The concept of allostasis in biology and biomedicine. Hormones and behavior 43, 2-15 (2003).

7. W. Goymann, J. C. Wingfield, Allostatic load, social status and stress hormones: the costs of social status matter. Animal Behaviour 67, 591-602 (2004)