Research programme

Mission: Evolutionary wildlife research for conservation

We study the diversity of life histories and evolutionary adaptations and their limits (including diseases) of free-ranging and captive wildlife species, and their interactions with people and their environment in Germany, Europe and worldwide. Our work incorporates expertise and results from different scientific disciplines and integrates theoretical and applied as well as mechanism- and function-oriented research to develop the scientific basis for novel approaches to conservation of wildlife.  

Vision: Understanding and improving adaptability

In the current era of the Anthropocene, virtually all ecosystems in the world are subject to some form of anthropogenic impact. As yet, it is usually not possible to reliably predict the response of wildlife in a specific context to the rapid global change. However, such predictions are urgently needed in order to design appropriate concepts and methods for conservation intervention and prioritise the use of the limited resources available for conservation. To achieve this, insights into the mechanisms and consequences of the likely responses of wildlife species to anthropogenic pressures are required – we need to know whether individuals (and in their sum populations, species and species communities) have sufficient adaptability to cope with these challenges.

We use adaptability as a term to describe the evolutionary (genetic and phenotypic) potential to respond to natural or anthropogenic environmental change. This response includes both the resistance, the extent to which wildlife is affected in the short term by some environmental change, and the resilience, the speed at which an individual, population, species or species community recovers after a challenge.

Our vision is to achieve two goals:

  1. Understanding adaptability: We want to contribute to the development of a comprehensive predictive framework that explains why some wildlife species are threatened by anthropogenic change while others persist or even thrive in degenerated or novel habitats.
  2. Improving adaptability: Based on this predictive framework, we aim to design appropriate concepts and methods for conservation intervention when natural mechanisms of adaptability are likely to fail.

Research Foci

Our work is organised in the three Research Foci Adaptations, Wildlife Diseases and Conservation.

The wider context: biodiversity and health

The research programme of the IZW bridges the two larger themes of biodiversity and health, two out of seven areas targeted by the United Nations Millenium Development Goals.

Biodiversity research aims to describe the diversity of life on different levels (genetic diversity, species diversity, ecosystem diversity) and understand the interactions within communities, the ecosystem services they provide and their responses to anthropogenic change. In this context, the IZW conducts functional biodiversity research from an evolutionary perspective, aiming to elucidate the diversity of life histories, characteristics and adaptations of wildlife, and how they determine whether a species is threatened by global change or can take advantage in terms of long-term persistence.

In health research, a recent paradigm change has produced the One Health concept which highlights the fact that human health is inextricably linked with the health of domestic animals and wildlife, and ecosystem health. Since these components should not be considered in isolation, the IZW contributes towards an integrated approach by supporting the extension of  conventional veterinary science towards the integrative, interdisciplinary approach of conservation medicine.

Choice of study species

Our research focuses on mammals and birds that are threatened, pose particular challenges for conservation or that are of high importance for one of the following reasons:

  • they are keystone species that affect many other species in an ecosystem and thus play a critical role in maintaining the structure of a community
  • they are at the centre of land-use conflicts between people and wildlife
  • as umbrella species they serve a prominent role in conservation because protecting these species indirectly protects many other species in the ecosystem
  • they represent charismatic flagship species ideally suited to increase public acceptance of conservation and the idea of a sustainable use of natural resources
  • they are good indicators for processes that threaten the diversity and functioning of natural ecosystems
  • they have complex, often little understood, evolutionary adaptations.

Our approach

In order to deliver timely and significant contributions towards the two goals of understanding and improving the adaptability of wildlife, our work combines:

  • long-term projects in free-ranging wildlife populations with studies on captive wildlife
  • laboratory-based analyses with field work and experiments on both captive and free-ranging wildlife model systems
  • questions about mechanisms (the proximate perspective) and predictions about the functional significance and adaptive value of traits (the ultimate perspective)
  • basic and applied research
  • complementary approaches from numerous disciplines from the biological and veterinary sciences
  • excellence in scientific research with a strong commitment to the dissemination of the results to and involvement of relevant stakeholders, the public and policy makers.

We work in a network of national and international collaborations, with universities, other academic institutes, zoological gardens, conservation organisations and business partners.