Ornithology Research

Systematics and taxonomy of Eurasian passerines based on molecular, bioacoustic and morphological marker systems; evaluation of cryptic biodiversity – Focus regions: Europe, Mediterranean and North Africa, Himalayas and neighbouring South China and Southeast Asia

The research focus of the ornithology department is linked to Senckenberg Research Field Biodiversity and Systematics. Cooperation projects exist with Research Field Biodiversity and Climate.



Passerine assemblages of the Sino-Himalayan mountain system

The Himalayan and Chinese mountain forests along the southern and eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau are one of the most important biodiversity hotspots of the Northern Hemisphere. For forest passerines we have reconstructed a three-fold evolutionary history: A first Miocence radiation of tropical faunal elements to the Sino-Himalayas followed by a second Pliocene radiation of boreal faunal elements to the subalpine forest belts of this region. The third and final phase corresponds to Pleistocene speciation processes due to range fragmentation and to the establishment of extant vicariance and parapatry.

Likewise the evolutionary history of alpine species assemblages of the Qinghai-Tibetan-Plateau must have been triggered by various phases of global climate change and independent colonization events. A current project on these alpine passerine populations is firmly associated with the DFG research cluster “Origin and Evolution of Tibetan-Himalayan Biotas” and joint meta-analyses will be carried out with respect to changes in organismic diversification rates and associated climate and vegetation changes.

Cooperation: All studies are based on long-term cooperation with the Key Laboratory of Animal Ecology and Conservation, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing, China (Prof. Yue-Hua Sun) and the Johannes-Gutenberg-University, Mainz (Professor Jochen Martens); further QTP research cluster cooperations: BiK-F project area D2.4 “Biodiversity and Evolution of arctic vertebrates“, Frankurt a. M. (Dr. Frank Hailer); Insitut für Ökologie, Evolution und Diversität, Johann-Wolfgang v. Goethe University of Frankfurt a. M. (Dr. Dieter Thomas Tietze); PhD candidate: Patrick Strutzenberger;
Funding: DFG, 2012-2015: QTP research cluster; LOEWE-Landes-Offensive zur Entwicklung Wissenschaftlich-ökonomischer Exzellenz” of Hesse’s Ministry of Higher Education, Research, and the Arts, 2011;
Key publications: Päckert et al. (2012): J. Biogeogr. 39Martens et al. (2011): Ornithol. Monogr. 70.Päckert et al. (2013): J. Ornithol. 154;


Island raditations: endemic passerines of Taiwan

According to BirdLifeInternational the avifauna of Taiwan comprises fifteen endemics (and even 24 endemics according to the IOC World List!) which make up about 9% of the breeding bird species. Furthermore, a good number of endemic subspecies from Taiwan might also deserve full species status. In this project we aimed at the inclusion of Taiwan endemic taxa (both species and subspecies) in molecular multilocus phylogenies. In flanking bioacoustic analyses we compared territorial songs of some of the target species to those of closely related conspecifics.

Cooperation: Biodiversity Research Center, Academia Sinica, Taipei (Prof. Lucia Liu Severinghaus)
Funding: Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft, Gesellschaft für Tropenornithologie, 2007

Project summary Taiwan

Allopatric speciation at the Isthmus of Kra – Thai bulbuls

The evolutionary history of the continental Southeast Asian avifauna involves faunal interchange with the adjacent mountain systems in the North and with the Sunda Region in the South. Extant phylogeographic differentiation patterns might have originated from complex island radiations including downstream colonization to the continent. Even in birds the opening and closure of land bridges such as the Isthmus of Kra on the Malaysian Peninsula might have triggered allopatric speciation. Under this aspect, we analyse the phylogeographic patterns of tropical bulbuls (Pycnonotus) across a latitudinal gradient in Thailand.

Cooperation: University of Ulm, Germany (Dr. Swen Renner); Prince of Songkla University; Hatyai, Thailand; PhD candidate: Ariya Dejtaradol.
Funding: Prince of Songkla University (grant to A. Dejtaradol), Paul-Ungerer-Stiftung; 


Historical demographic changes

Museum collections represent an invaluable source of material for the reconstruction of past demographic changes of model species. In this project we focus on the pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) which is known to respond to recent climate changes. Our main aim is to reconstruct how genetic diversity in Europe has changed over the past fifty to hundred years in correlation with changes of dispersal patterns and population sizes. In addition, we try to assess patterns in candidate genes which are known to respond to temperature. These studies also include the optimization of DNA extraction and amplification protocols using historical DNA samples from different kinds of tissue.

Cooperation: BiK-F project area C1.3 “Traces of genetic adaptation in natural history collections” (Prof. Klaus Schwenk, Dr. Kerstin Kuhn)
Funding: LOEWE-Landes-Offensive zur Entwicklung Wissenschaftlich-ökonomischer Exzellenz” of Hesse’s Ministry of Higher Education, Research, and the Arts, 2008 – 2011
Key publications: Töpfer et al. (2011): BMC Res. Not. 4; 


Taxon-complete phylogenies

Robustness of phylogenetic reconstructions can be highly dependent on the completeness of taxon sampling. For this purpose museum collections provide a strong database for a taxon complete phylogenetic approach including rare species of a highly restricted range or specimens from remote or inaccessible regions. For example, DNA analysis of museum specimens enabled us to complete the phylogeny of true rosefinches (Carpodacus s. str.). Furthermore, capture and collection of fresh genetic material like feathers and blood can be generally time and cost intensive like in the case of the strictly aerial swifts and swiftlets (Apodidae). Based on a comprehensive sampling from bird collections we were able provide a taxon-complete multi-locus phylogeny for the Old World swift genera Apus and Tachymarptis and to give reliable taxonomic recommendations at the species and genus level.

Cooperation: Johann-Wolfgang v. Goethe University of Frankfurt a. M. (Dr. Dieter Thomas Tietze); Funding:Staatsministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst Sachsen, 2008; Synthesys, 2008, 2010; LOEWE-Landes-Offensive zur Entwicklung Wissenschaftlich-ökonomischer Exzellenz” of Hesse’s Ministry of Higher Education, Research, and the Arts, 2011. Key publications: Päckert et al. (2012): Mol. Phyl. Evol. 63; 


Reverse colonization in Afrocanarian blue tits

Islands are usually considered sink populations and the end of colonization pathways and upstream colonization from islands to continents is rather regarded as the exception of the rule. However, our multilocus reconstructions for blue and azure tits (Cyanistes) prove an exceptional evolutionary scenario. The Canary Island populations of Afrocanarian blue tits C. teneriffae date back to an early Pliocene colonization from North Africa (including relic populations in Libya and on La Palma) and harboured founders for a terminal back-colonization to the North African continent.

Cooperation: Oviedo University, Campus of Mieres, Spain (Dr. J.C. Illera), University of Oulu, Finland (Prof. Laura Kvist)
Key publicationsIllera et al. (2011): Mol. Ecol. 20;Päckert et al. (2013): Mol. Phyl. Evol. (in press);

Gene flow in secondary contact

Intraspecific genetic differentiation of widespread species is often oversimplified in phylogenetic reconstructions solely based on mitochondrial markers and on small sampling regimes. Particularly under a scenario of extant or past gene flow and hybridization the combination of a phylogeographic approach and population genetic methods can provide more powerful explanations of the observed patterns in the wild. In this project we study a pan-European secondary contact zone of two widespread genetic lineages of the coal tit, Periparus ater, with respect to continental zones of gene flow/ introgression and insular differentiation in the Mediterranean.

Cooperation: Università Degli Studi Di Palermo (Prof. Mario LoValvo, Gabriele Giacalone); Dr. Heiko Stuckas (SNSD), PhD candidate: Christian Tritsch.
Funding: Staatsministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst Sachsen, 2009-2010;
Key publications: Pentzold et al. (2013): Zool. Anz. (in press);