Neuronal mechanisms of alarm calling behavior

Susanne Hoffmann receives ERC Consolidator Grant for her research on alarm calls in birds

An alarm can save lives. Not surprisingly, many animals, including some species of birds, use alarm calls to warn conspecifics in the presence of danger. However, the neural basis of alarm call production and the brain's response to such calls has never been studied in a natural context before. This is what Susanne Hoffmann from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence now wants to do. Her innovative research project on the neural mechanisms of alarm calling behavior in birds is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) with a Consolidator Grant amounting to 1.9 million euros.

Watch out, danger! Many animals, but also humans, use alarm calls to warn conspecifics of predators or threats. Such alarm calls represent a fascinating evolutionary paradox: While they can increase the chances of survival in the recipients, they often put the sender at a higher risk of being exposed. Elucidating the role of the brain in such anti-predator behavior, is important for understanding how neural systems facilitate decision-making in life-threatening situations. This ultimately may also help to explain why animals risk their lives to warn others. In her new project "NeurAlarm”, Susanne Hoffmann will investigate how the brain controls and responds to alarm calls in a natural context.

The researchers will study the neural mechanisms involved in the production and processing of alarm calls, and in the generation of responses to alarm calls, in birds. Combining neurophysiological techniques with field research, NeurAlarm will address many open questions, such as: Is the production of alarm and other calls controlled by the same neural circuits? Are neurons in the bird’s auditory system especially sensitive to alarm calls? Do the neurons react differently depending on who gives the alarm call?  To answer these questions, the research project is now supported with an ERC Consolidator Grant of 1.9 million euros over the next five years. 

Susanne Hoffmann and her team will study the alarm calling behavior of two different bird species, the African White-browed Sparrow Weaver and the Australian Noisy Miner. They will employ wireless miniature recording devices specifically developed at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence. This enables them to simultaneously record vocal behavior and brain activities of several individuals within groups of interacting birds. “NeurAlarm will be the first project to record neural activity in freely moving, wild birds that produce alarm calls and listen to alarm calls produced by group mates in naturally threatening situations," explains Susanne Hoffmann.

NeurAlarm is particularly interesting because it links three different neural systems: the vocal control system, the auditory system and the fear system. "Measuring the activity in these different brain areas in wild birds will contribute significantly to our understanding of the neural mechanisms of natural behavior," concludes Susanne Hoffmann. In addition to promoting neuroscience in a natural environment, NeurAlarm has the potential to advance basic evolutionary and behavioral knowledge.

[Text: Magdalena Warner]

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