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Avian Ecology and Evolution group

Prof. dr. Luc Lens
Terrestrial Ecology Unit
Department of Biology
Ghent University
K.L. Ledeganckstraat 35
9000 Gent Belgium

Phone: +32 (0)9 264 52 54

Research vision

Individual-based ecology aims to understand the functioning of animal populations through the study of individual performance and responses. This requires a good knowledge of behavioural and physiological traits, which are generally well documented in birds. Hence our choice of this taxon to address proximate and ultimate population effects of (rapid) environmental change through the study of captive-bred and free-living individuals. Topics of particular interest include parental investment, natal dispersal, avian invasions, avian cognition, population genomics, and adaptive radiation. We conduct research in various field settings ranging from modern aviaries in Ostend to coastal, urbanized and forested habitats in Flanders, tropical rainforests in Africa, and small islands off the Australian coast.

A hub for scientists

The Avian Ecology and Evolution (AEE) lab provides a hub for researchers who typically show the same variation in site fidelity as their objects of study: some are strictly territorial, others reside mainly in partner institutions but are regularly in transit, while a few are true long-distance wanderers or even vagrants. But all AEE students have in common that they are working towards a PhD awarded by Ghent University, often in the form of a joint diploma (cotutelle) with a partner faculty or institution. The hallmarks of the lab are scientific excellence and technological innovation, which we try to achieve through multidisciplinary collaboration with international experts and involvement of conservation NGOs and citizens.

Current research programs

The lab participates in several short- and long-term research programs that provide the necessary financial and logistical support. Some of these programs are led by AEE, while in others it mainly acts as a partner. Research is currently being conducted in the following six areas.

Study of forest complexity as driver of stress-mediated pathogen dynamics

The main aim of this program is to quantify the role of chronic stress-mediated pathogen susceptibility in forests with contrasting tree species diversity and associated complexity. The overarching research hypothesis is that lower chronic stress levels of host species in more complex forests lead to lower pathogen susceptibility at the individual level and, in turn, lower pathogen prevalence at the community level.

Researcher involved: Drs. Bram Catfolis

Mechanistic study of avian distribution ranges and invasion success

The main aim of this program is to gain a deeper understanding of  avian distribution patterns at local and global scales. This is achieved by testing fundamental mechanisms that determine the ability of birds to tolerate temperatures outside their thermoneutral zone. While most ecological predictions are currently based on extrapolation of realized niches, this program explicitly aims to quantify fundamental (thermal) niches. The question of how endothermic organisms balance their need to produce and dissipate heat is addressed through the study of (sub)tropical birds introduced to Europe and native European songbirds.

Researchers involved: Dr. Diederik Strubbe (PI), Drs. Cesare Pacioni, Drs. Marina Sentis Villa

Eco-evolutionary studies on Afrotropical forest birds

Due to the year-round food availability in the tropical zone, most (insectivorous) birds are residents with an extended breeding season. This contrasts sharply with the temperate zone, where climate is a major constraint, forcing birds to reproduce quickly. This sets the stage for major differences in social behavior and life history strategies of tropical birds in the face of current global change. Since 1994, the lab has coordinated the longest-running population study on forest fragmentation effects in the sub-Saharan region, with a special focus on cooperative breeding. AEE also coordinates a genomic study on rapid evolutionary radiation in the genus Zosterops, and is involved in two avian community studies in Ethiopia.

Researchers involved: Dr. Laurence Cousseau (PI), Dr. Jan Engler (PI), Dr. Claudia Martin (PI),  Drs. Gladys Kung’u, Drs. Ferehiwot Ademassie, Drs. Gelaye Gebremichael

Life-history studies on migratory, colonial-breeding gulls

Organisms invest in growth, reproduction and survival differently throughout their lives. Because of complex trade-offs between different life stages, understanding variation in life-history strategies requires the ability to follow individuals throughout their annual cycle, which is a challenge in migratory species. In this context, the lab is participating in a long-term research program (led by the University of Antwerp and the Research Institute for Nature and Forest) on how pre-breeding environmental conditions and post-breeding parental strategies shape the physiology, behaviour and performance in offspring of two gull species breeding in natural colonies (ground) and coastal villages (rooftops) along the Belgian and Dutch coast.

Researchers involved: Drs. Mélibée Morel, Drs. Reyes Salas, Drs. Jolien Van Malderen

Eco-devo studies on cognition and links to behaviour and fitness

The main aim of these studies is to provide new explanations of how and why individuals differ in their ability to stop and change behaviour in response to unexpected events or changes in the environment. This concerns questions such as: (1) what are the underlying neurobiological and cognitive mechanisms that enable individuals to adapt their behavior; (2) how do these mechanisms develop during an individual’s lifetime?; (3) what are the consequences if individuals are better (or just less) able to adapt their behavior?; and (4) how has the ability to adapt behavior evolved (and are there species that are better or less able to adapt their behavior)? This long-term program is funded and coordinated by Prof. Frederick Verbruggen (Dept. of Experimental Psychology) and involves a variety of species and methods, ranging from  controlled experiments in individual test arenas to detailed observations in mesocosms and GPS tracking in the wild. All researchers involved are also member of the CoBE lab.

Researchers involved: Dr. Alizée Vernouillet, Dr. Camille Troisi, Drs. Anneleen Dewulf, Drs. Wen Zhang, Drs. Sophia Knoch, Drs. Kathryn Willcox, Drs. Reinoud Allaert

Conservation ecology of vulnerable or data-poor species

While most of the above research programs are indirectly focused on aspects of conservation, AEE also engages in projects whose main objective is to collect data that can be directly applied to the management of vulnerable species. These studies are usually conducted under the guidance of research labs with a strong conservation record. Currently, three such studies are conducted in collaboration with Deakin University (Australia) and one study is conducted in collaboration with the Research Institute for Nature and Forest. The students involved are mainly stationed at these institutes and visit the AEE lab for shorter periods.  

Researchers involved: Drs. Thomas Cansse, Drs. Aurore Counilh, Drs. Alix Kristiansen, Drs. Wouter Courtens

Publication list (UGent affiliations only)