Universiteit Leiden

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Katharina Riebel

Associate professor

Dr. K. Riebel
+31 71 527 5149

Katharina Riebel investigates causes and consequences of condition and learning dependent phenotypic variation in sexually selected traits and preference.

More information about Katharina Riebel


Katharina Riebel investigates causes and consequences of condition and learning dependent phenotypic variation in sexually selected traits and preference.

Culture, condition and cognition: Beauty is in the ear of the beholder

An organism’s fitness hinges on producing progeny. In sexually reproducing organisms this requires finding a suitable mate: a process that crucially relies on mating signals which mediate mate recognition and choice. Although there is general agreement on the importance of mate choice in population dynamics and speciation processes, the often pronounced variation in female mating preferences within populations remain poorly understood. 

My current research interests focuss on improving our understanding of developmental processes that contribute to such variation, namely sensory learning and state dependency of choice.

Learning of female song preferences

Male songbirds have to learn their species and population specific mate attraction song from adult conspecifics. Do females’ early sensory experiences also shape their song preferences? I investigate how subadult sensory learning affects how attractive female birds find particular male songs and how important song learning is for them to develop stable and repeatable preferences.

Asking the birds: Developing avian questionaires

A crucial precondition for my research program is a reliable method to test female song preferences. Over the years, building on observations showing that song is so attractive to females that it can be used as a reward in an operant task (key pecking or perch hopping for song), I have validated such operant tests for female song preference testing. A great advantage of this testing paradigm is that females have active control: they decide how much song they want to hear when Females will readily perform such tasks as key pecking to obtain song exposure and by pecking for some songs more often than for others, reveal their song preferences.

Early family live and adult mating behaviour

Birds’ early family life (being reared in small or large broods respectively) has long term consequences on adult morphology, physiology, behaviour and life span. We emulate this naturally occurring variation in phenotypic quality by using brood size manipulations as an important tool to manipulate adult condition in an ecological meaningful range. I am interested in studying how these differences in phenotypic quality affect male signalling and female mating decisions and how I can use this paradigm to test predictions for optimal mate choices from sexual selection and state dependent mate choice theory.

Associate professor

  • Science
  • Instituut Biologie Leiden
  • IBL Animal Sciences

Work address

Sylviusweg 72
2333 BE Leiden
Room number 7.4.17



  • NWO Science Domain (ENW) vice chair Advisory Board roundtable Life Sciences
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