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Institut für Evolutionäre Anthropologie (IEA)

Xenia Schleuning


I am broadly interested in the role of behaviour and cognition for the evolution of social systems. For my PhD I will investigate the factors promoting delayed dispersal and prolonged parental investment, leading to family living, in birds. Past research on the ecological constraints hypothesis has come short of finding an ultimate explanation for such group cohesion, as many species, that face dispersal constraints, do not live in family groups. More recently research has focused on philopatry and nepotism and emphasizes the role of life-history, in particular of longevity, which seems to correlate with family living. Within this framework I believe that the correlative relationship of long-lived species having larger brains might play a crucial role in understanding the optimality of delayed dispersal. In such species adult skill competence might not be reached as early as maturity. Further skill transfer (through social learning) from parents to offspring could thus increase the benefits of delayed dispersal compared to their costs. In avian systems this aspect has to date not received much attention.

Siberian jays (Perisoreus infaustus) offer a perfect system to study the role of skill transfer in the evolution of family living. This corvid species lives in a highly challenging environment, which is snowbound for more than 6 months per year, and families are formed through delayed dispersal. Moreover, siblings compete to stay with their parents. First born and socially dominant brood members force subordinate siblings to leave their natal territory as soon as independence is reached. These join other non-related groups. The Siberian Jays’ nepotistic behaviour is, however, solely restricted to related offspring. The system hence offers the opportunity to explore whether retained offspring benefit from the prolonged time with their parents compared to their expelled siblings. Using empirical tests in the field as well as long-term data I aim to investigate, if such benefits can be found in increased cognitive abilities, possibly leading to an increase in lifetime reproductive fitness.

The project is conducted under the supervision of Prof. Michael Griesser and co-supervised by Prof. Carel van Schaik.

Previous research that I have been involved with includes the evolutionary and ecological causes and consequences of individual variation of wild Great Tit populations (supervised by Prof. Niels Dingemanse, Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology) and the social learning of captive jackdaws and New Caledonian crows (Dr. Auguste von Bayern, University of Oxford).

My project is financed by the University of Zurich, with support from Net1.



PhD in Evolutionary Ecology - Behavioural Ecology,
Anthropological Institute, University of Zurich


Technical assistant, Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics Group, Prof. B. Kempenaers, Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen


Research assistant, Behavioural Ecology Research Group,
Dr. A. v. Bayern, University of Oxford, Research Station Leutstetten


M.Sc. in Evolution, Ecology and Systematics
Ludwig-Maximilans-University Munich, Germany


B.Sc. in Environmental Science and Management
Southern-Cross-University, Lismore, Australia

Weiterführende Informationen


Xenia Schleuning
Anthropological Institute and Museum
Office Y42-K-66
University of Zürich - Irchel
Winterthurerstrasse 190
CH-8057 Zürich

Phone: +41 (0)44 635 54 34