Mothers influence more than you would expect
"I'm a behavioural biologist, interested in how and why individuals vary in their behaviour and physiology. I am especially interested in how mothers influence this variation. Maternal effects shape the young in addition to the genes it inherits from its parents, and epigenetics is a fascinating topic. Maternal care, for instance, affects how the young will cope with stress later in life by changing the expression of certain genes. Maternal effects even already influence the young before birth! Hormones, nutrients and antibodies from the mother affect the development of the young’s physiology, as well as brain functions such as cognition or emotional behaviour."
Fascinated by birds
"I worked with several animal species, but birds hold a particular fascination for me, and I enjoyed studying birds such as pigeons, chickens and quail. Birds are an important part of our society; in agriculture, as pets and in zoos. The most beautiful thing, though, is to observe them free in their natural habitat. I was lucky to be involved in field studies in the Bavarian Alps, up north in Sweden and in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa!"
Model for humans
"Birds might also be a model for humans. In mammals, the foetus is closely connected to the mother, so prenatal maternal effects are rather difficult to study. In birds, hormones and other substances are deposited by the mother directly into the egg. So, I can study how the environment affects the mother’s physiology and behaviour, which will affect the deposition of hormones to the egg. And finally, I can test the effects of these hormones on the chicks."
"Maternal stress is a big topic in human health. But prenatal stress also affects the offspring of birds, and the mechanisms are quite comparable.
Interestingly, maternal stress might not be all that negative. Mothers prepare their young for the future environment, so the maternal effects may make the young more resistant to negative experiences when they grow up. On the other hand, maternal stress might very much affect the offspring’s health in a negative way, a famous example being the children of mothers that underwent the Dutch hunger winter of 1944; it very much depends on the kind and severity of stress."
Emotions in birds
"While the majority of studies investigate prenatal stress, I want to study the effects of positive experiences. Almost nothing is known about emotions in birds, and even less about their positive emotions. If mothers have a positive experience with enrichments or feeding, the young might be even better prepared to cope with stress and diseases. I’m convinced that birds experience positive emotions, just as so many different animal species do. At the moment, we just don’t have sufficient knowledge or the right tools to identify positive emotions. Excuse me for being anthropomorphic, but having seen quail jumping in a fresh sandbath, they must be enjoying that!"
"Certain aspects of the way we keep and handle animals in our society have to be improved. With my research, I hope to contribute to a better understanding of the needs of birds, their emotions, and how to improve their welfare in different contexts. I’m very happy to be in a research environment where I can find the optimal circumstances to achieve this goal.”