Two Substantial Grants from the European Research Council

No 204/2018 from Jul 27, 2018

The behavioral biologist PD Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild and the neuroscientist Dr. Radoslav Cichy from Freie Universität Berlin have each won a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). Each ERC Starting Grant is worth up to 1.5 million euros over a maximum of five years. With the Starting Grants the ERC promotes pioneering projects led by researchers at an early stage in their academic careers. Mirjam Knörnschild’s project is entitled Culture as an evolutionary force . Radoslaw Cichy studies the neural dynamics of visual cognition.

PD Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild
Culture as an evolutionary force

PD Dr. Mirjam Knörnschild works in the fields of behavioral ecology and bioacustics. She is a Heisenberg Group Leader at the Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy at Freie Universität and a visiting scientist at the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde - Leibniz Institute for Evolutionary and Biodiversity Research. Her project is entitled Culture as an evolutionary force: Does song learning accelerate speciation in a bat ring species?

Culture plays a prominent role in human evolution. Cultural differences can affect not only our behavior, but also our genes. The ability to metabolize lactose as an adult, for example, developed along with the cultural achievement of livestock farming. Such a coevolution of genes and culture can be found in different areas of life, not only in humans but also in other animals. However, it is still unclear whether cultural differences in animals are merely associated with genetic differences, or whether cultural differences can even promote the development of different species. Mirjam Knörnschild aims to answer this question by examining the influence of culturally transmitted dialects on speciation in a bat species: males of the greater sac-winged bat Saccopteryx bilineata are known for their versatile singing, which has distinct regional differences. These regional dialects are culturally transmitted, as they are passed on through learning processes from generation to generation. In addition, Saccopteryx bilineata in Central America is a so-called ring species, which is crucial for the research project. A ring species emerges when a species spreads around a barrier, such as a mountain range, and the two populations at the end of the ring no longer mate when they encounter each other again. Studying a ring species with culturally transmitted dialects makes it possible, for the first time, to test at each step of speciation along the ring whether cultural differences are responsible for genetic differences among populations. If culturally transmitted dialects actually speed up speciation, there would for the first time be evidence that cultural selection is an important evolutionary force along with natural selection and sexual selection.