Animal Ecology

Nestkasten AnE
© Peter de Vries / NIOO-KNAW

The department’s research is aimed at understanding the causes and consequences of variation in life-history traits, including the underlying genomic mechanisms, as well as the variation in time and space, of population numbers and population composition.

The research of the department of Animal Ecology aims to integrate processes at the level of genes, physiology, behaviour and the population, within an evolutionary framework. Much of the research takes anthropogenic changes explicitly into account, such as adaptation to climate change, the impact of climate extremes, effects of urbanisation and changes in land-use.

Perro de Jong / NIOO-KNAW

The department’s research has two main objectives, which are ultimately to be integrated. In our evolutionary research, the dot on the research horizon is the transition from understanding to predicting evolution. This will involve understanding the genotype-phenotype map, with an emphasis on the role of genome methylation and on the drivers of selection. To predict these, we will focus on the role of climate extremes and human induced selection (climate change and land use change), mainly using our long-term field studies and our aviary research on small song-birds.

In our ecological research we will focus on forecasting population trends using integrated population models (for geese and swans in collaboration with CAPS partners), with an emphasis on Arctic systems (for geese and swans). Our greatest challenge is to connect evolutionary and ecological dynamics for a better understanding of the population consequences of anthropogenic effects, taking evolution into account.

Long-term population studies

A major hallmark of the research in Animal Ecology is long-term studies on hole-breeding passerines. At four locations in the Netherlands (Hoge Veluwe, Vlieland, Oosterhout, Liesbos) we have studied populations of great tits, blue tits, pied flycatchers and a few more species. These studies started in 1955 and are the longest running studies worldwide on individually known wild birds.

The study serves three main purposes. Firstly, we analyse long term trends in our populations, for instance in how species respond to climate change. Secondly, shorter term experimental work is done that makes use of the vast amount of background data that is available. Thirdly, we collaborate with a huge number of research groups in the world where our long-term data are used either to validate new methodology or as part of a comparative study.

Because of our central role in these collaborative projects, the department has initiated the Studies of Populations of Individuals – Birds (SPI-Birds) database, which greatly facilitates such collaboration.


Animal personality

Yes, animals have personality too! Anyone who has owned a pet can confirm this. In fact, animal personality represents one of the fastest-growing research areas in ecology and behavioural biology. Animal Ecology was at the cradle of this research field, and harbours one of the longest-term datasets of personality-typed individuals in a natural population. So, why does animal personality exist? What is causing this variation and what are the consequences? In Animal Ecology, we aim to answer these questions by combining our long-term field data with focused in- and outdoor experiments.

Pink panther

Impact of light

Today, natural darkness at night can only be found in remote areas. With economic growth and urbanisation, we - unintentionally - expose our natural environment to ever more artificial light. We study the effects on the presence, behaviour and physiology of different species groups, and their interactions. Knowledge on why and how animals respond to light at night enables us to prevent and mitigate negative impact.

The study of light colour impact

Bird migration

In Animal Ecology we have a long history of tracking birds on their migration, starting with Bewick’s swans in the 1990s. By adding sensors next to GPS, the bird’s location and behaviour is monitored in increasing detail, enabling us for example to remotely determine nesting success. Our long-term tracking makes it possible to study how birds change their migration in response to mostly anthropogenic changes, and to use the tracked birds as sentinels of changes in their environment. We have a close connection to the Vogeltrekstation:

Flying goose


Peer-reviewed publications