Head of Division
Prof. Dr. Michael Taborsky

Institut für Ökologie und Evolution
Telefon: +41 31 631 91 11
Telefax: +41 31 631 91 41
E-Mail:   claudia.leiser@iee.unibe.ch

Ethologische Station Hasli
Wohlenstrasse 50a
CH-3032 Hinterkappelen

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Universität Bern


PNAS - Predation risk drives social complexity in cooperative breeders. Groenewoud, Frommen, Josi, Tanaka, Jungwirth & Taborsky
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The evolution of cooperation based on direct fitness benefits. Phil Trans theme issue compiled and edited by Taborsky M., Frommen JG & Riehl C. (2016)
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NATURE COMMUNICATIONS Kinship reduces alloparental care in cooperative cichlids where helpers pay-to-stay
Zoettl M., Heg D., Chervet N. & Taborsky M. (2013)
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Social competence: an evolutionary approach
Taborsky, B. & Oliveira, R.F.
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Larval helpers and age polyethism in ambrosia beetles
Biedermann P.H.W. & Taborsky M.
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Animal personality due to social niche specialisation
Bergmueller R. & Taborsky M.
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Environmental Change Enhances Cognitive Abilities in Fish
Kotrschal, A. & Taborsky, B.
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Extended phenotypes as signals
Franziska C. Schaedelin and Michael Taborsky
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On the Origin of Species by Natural and Sexual Selection
G. Sander van Doorn, Pim Edelaar, Franz J. Weissing
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Cambridge University Press
Alternative Reproductive Tactics: An Integrative

Oliveira R., Taborsky M. & Brockmann H.J.
more information

Prof. Dr. Michael Taborsky

Head of Behavioural Ecology Department

Co-director of Institute of Ecology and Evolution
University of Bern

[link to teaching]




Phone: +41 31 631 /9156 (office); /9111 (secretary); 9141 (fax)

Google Scholar Profile

Full list of publications

Research Interests

My major research focus is the adaptive function of behaviour, with emphasis on cooperation and conflict, sociality and sexual reproduction

Evolutionary Mechanisms of Cooperation and Advanced Sociality

  • Cooperation and altruism among conspecifics, including the sacrifice of reproduction, is a crucial enigma of evolutionary theory, especially if it occurs among non-kin. Why do individuals accept a fitness loss to the benefit of others? We study the mechanisms involved in the organization and evolutionary stability of cooperation in highly complex societies using theoretical models, cooperatively breeding cichlids and ambrosia beetles. Roughly 25 cichlid species of Lake Tanganyika breed cooperatively in groups mixed of related and unrelated individuals engaging in costly helping behaviours, division of labour and exchange of different commodities. This enables us to unravel the relative importance of direct and indirect fitness effects on the evolution of cooperation and social structure. More than 1300 species of fungus cultivating xyleborine ambrosia beetles combine all features typical for eusocial insects such as ants and termites, nevertheless they breed cooperatively and are not eusocial. This enables us to study the ecological conditions responsible for, and limiting, the evolution of the most complex forms of social organization existing in nature.
Sample publications:
  • Jungwirth, A., Taborsky, M. (2015) First- and second-order sociality determine survival and reproduction in cooperative cichlids. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20151971, doi:10.1098/rspb.2015.1971 [pdf]
  • Jungwirth, A., Josi, D., Walker, J. & Taborsky, M. (2015): Benefits of coloniality: communal defence saves anti-predator effort in cooperative breeders. Funct. Ecol. 29: 1218-1224, doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.12430 [pdf]
  • Zöttl M., Heg D., Chervet N. & Taborsky M. (2013): Kinship reduces alloparental care in cooperative cichlids where helpers pay-to-stay. Nature Commun. 4:1341 [pdf]
  • Zöttl M., Frommen J.G. & Taborsky M. (2013): Group size adjustment to ecological demand in a cooperative breeder. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B 280:20122772 [pdf]
  • Biedermann P.H.W. & Taborsky M. (2011): Larval helpers and age polyethism in ambrosia beetles. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 108:17064-17069 [pdf]
  • Bruintjes R. & Taborsky M. (2011): Size-dependent task specialization in a cooperative cichlid in response to experimental variation of demand. Anim. Behav. 81:387-394 [pdf]

  • Reciprocity is difficult to be safeguarded from exploitation by free riders. Appropriate control measures require sufficient cognitive capacity, which obviously exists in many vertebrates applying the decision rule ‘help someone who has helped you before’ (direct reciprocity). An alternative decision rule by which recent social experience can modulate cooperation propensity is ‘help anyone if helped by someone (‘generalized reciprocity’). We have shown that this simple heuristic can induce evolutionarily stable levels of cooperation. Generalized reciprocity might be as widespread in nature as winner and loser effects, which reflect the corresponding ‘anonymous’ interaction mechanisms in social conflicts. Another important cooperation mechanism is the reciprocal exchange of different services and commodities, which is often based on negotiations among cooperation partners, such as in ‘pay-to-stay’ scenarios.
Sample publications:
  • Dolivo, V. & Taborsky, M. (2015): Norway rats reciprocate help according to the quality of help they received. Biol. Lett. 11:20140959 [pdf]
  • Schneeberger K., Dietz M. & Taborsky M. (2012): Reciprocal cooperation between unrelated rats depends on cost to donor and benefit to recipient. BMC Evol. Biol. 12:41 [pdf]
  • Van Doorn G.S. & Taborsky M. (2012): The evolution of generalized reciprocity on social interaction networks. Evolution 66:651-664 [pdf]
  • Barta Z., McNamara J.M., Huszár D.B. & Taborsky M. (2011): Cooperation among non-relatives evolves by state-dependent generalized reciprocity. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B. 278:843-848 [pdf
  • Rutte C. & Taborsky M. (2007): Generalized reciprocity in rats. PLoS Biology 5, 1421-1425. [pdf]
  • Bergmüller R., Heg D. & Taborsky M. (2005): Helpers in a cooperatively breeding cichlid stay and pay or disperse and breed, depending on ecological constraints. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B 272:325-331 [pdf]

Alternative Reproductive Tactics, Consistent Behavioural Variation and Extended Phenotypes

  • Alternative behavioural phenotypes often coexist within populations. Examples encompass consistent behavioural types (‘behavioural syndromes’ or ‘animal personalities’) and ‘alternative reproductive tactics’. Alternative behavioural phenotypes are to some degree heritable and to some degree modifiable by environmental and social experience (‘social niche hypothesis’). Alternative tactics are particularly widespread among males competing for fertilizations, where ‘reproductive parasites’ exploit the effort of ‘bourgeois investors’. In species with external fertilization this often creates intense sperm competition and striking divergence in behaviour, morphology and physiology.
Sample publications:
  • von Kuerthy, C., Tschirren, L. & Taborsky, M. (2015): Alternative reproductive tactics in snail shell-brooding cichlids diverge in energy reserve allocation. Ecol. Evol. 5: 2060–2069 [pdf]
  • Wirtz Ocana, S., Meidl, P., Bonfils, D. & Taborsky, M. (2014): Y-linked Mendelian inheritance of giant and dwarf male morphs in shell-brooding cichlids.  Proc. Roy. Soc. B 281: 20140253 [pdf]
  • Bergmüller R. & Taborsky M. (2010): Animal personality due to social niche specialisation. Trends Ecol. Evol. 25:504-511 [pdf]
  • Taborsky M. & Brockmann H.J. (2010): Alternative reproductive tactics and life history phenotypes. In: Animal Behaviour: Evolution and Mechanisms (Ed. Kappeler P). Springer, Berlin. 537-586. [pdf]
  • Schütz D., Pachler G., Ripmeester E., Goffinet O. & Taborsky M. (2010): Reproductive investment of giants and dwarfs: specialized tactics in a cichlid fish with alternative male morphs. Functional Ecology 24: 131-140. [pdf]
  • Taborsky M., Brockmann H.J. & Oliviera R. (2008). The evolution of alternative reproductive tactics: concepts and questions. In: Alternative Reproductive Tactics: An Integrative Approach (eds. Oliveira R., Taborsky M. & Brockmann H.J.). Cambridge University Press, 1-21. [pdf]

  • Extended phenotypes can serve similar functions as bodily and behavioural attributes signalling individual quality that are shaped by sexual selection. In this case information about individual quality is conveyed to social partners by behavioural modifications of the environment, for instance by constructing non-bodily ornaments such as bowers. This allows us to disentangle and manipulate multiple signals in order to understand their meaning. We use cichlids constructing elaborate sand craters or collecting gastropod shells as models to study the conditions under which extended phenotypes replace or complement secondary sexual characters.
Sample publications:
  • Mitchell, J.S., Wirtz Ocana, S. & Taborsky, M. (2014): Male and female shell-brooding cichlids prefer different shell characteristics.  Anim. Behav. 98:131-137 [pdf]
  • Häsler M.P., Lindeyer C.M., Otti O., Bonfils D., Heg D. & Taborsky M. (2011): Female mouthbrooders in control of pre- and postmating sexual selection. Behav. Ecol. 22:1033-1041 [pdf]
  • Schaedelin F.C. & Taborsky M. (2010): Female choice of a non-bodily ornament: an experimental study of cichlid sand craters in Cyathopharynx furcifer. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 64:1437-1447 [pdf]
  • Schaedelin F.C. & Taborsky M. (2009): Extended phenotypes as signals. Biological Reviews 84, 293–313. [pdf]
  • Immler S. & Taborsky M. (2009): Sequential polyandry affords post-mating sexual selection in the mouths of cichlid females. Behavioural Ecology & Sociobiology 63: 1219-1230. [pdf]
  • Hamilton I.M., Haesler M.P. & Taborsky M. (2006): Predators, reproductive parasites, and the persistence of poor males on leks. Behavioral Ecology 17, 97-107. [pdf]

Research Methods: Towards a Comprehensive Understanding of Behaviour, and Improved Publication Practice

  • An integrative approach including ultimate and proximate mechanisms is essential for a comprehensive understanding of animal behaviour. Since its emergence as a scientific discipline, ethology or ‘behavioural biology’ has gone through different phases and fashions focusing either on causal or evolutionary mechanisms, but increasingly the need for an integrative approach seems to be recognized. Furthermore, behavioural research typically focuses on laboratory ‘model species’ allowing the application of sophisticated genetic and physiological techniques, which comes at a cost regarding our understanding of ecological conditions selecting for behavioural adaptations. In addition to analysing habits and traditions in behavioural science, I set myself to critically evaluate research and publication customs in this field, which spawned a number of articles dealing with issues as diverse as the use of theory, sample size and citation practices.
Sample publications:
  • Taborsky, M., Taborsky, B. (2015) Evolution of genetic and physiological mechanisms of cooperative behaviour. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 6, doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.11.001 [pdf]
  • Taborsky, M., Hofmann, H.A., Beery, A.K., Blumstein, D.T., Hayes, L.D., Lacey, E.A., Martins, E.P., Phelps, S.M., Solomon, N.G. & Rubenstein, D.R. (2015): Taxon matters: promoting integrative studies of social behavior. Trends in Neurosciences. 38:189-191 [pdf
  • Taborsky M (2014): Tribute to Tinbergen: The Four Problems of Biology. A Critical Appraisal. Ethology 120: 224-227 [pdf]
  • Hofmann, H.A., Beery, A.K., Blumstein, D.T., Couzin, I.D., Earley, R.L., Hayes, L.D., Hurd, P.L., Lacey, E.A., Phelps, S.M., Solomon, N.G., Taborsky, M., Young, L.J. & Rubenstein, D.R. (2014): An evolutionary framework for studying mechanisms of social behavior. Trends Ecol. Evol. 29:581-589 [pdf]
  • Taborsky M (2010): Sample Size in the Study of Behaviour. Ethology 116: 185–202. [pdf]
  • Taborsky M. (2009): Biased Citation Practice and Taxonomic Parochialism. Ethology 115: 105–111. [pdf]


> 160 publications in peer reviewed scientific journals and books; 3 edited books

Full list of publications

Google Scholar Profile

Curriculum Vitae

Since 2000 Professor of Ecology and Evolution, Chair in Behavioural Ecology, University of Bern, Switzerland
Since 2000 Associate Professor at the Department of Behavioural Biology, University of Vienna
1992-2000 Lecturer at the Institute of Zoology, University of Vienna
1986-2000 Research scientist and deputy director at Konrad Lorenz-Institute of Comparative Ethology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences at Vienna
1983-1989 Research projects at STARESO (Corsica, France) and University of Auckland (New Zealand)
1983-1985 Postdoctoral research fellow at the Max-Planck-Institute of Behavioural Physiology at Seewiesen
1982 PhD at Max-Planck-Institute of Behavioural Physiology (Seewiesen), supervised by Prof. Wolfgang Wickler; graduation at University of Vienna

Academic duties, honours and awards (excerpt)

2015-2016 Guest editor, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B
2013-2014 Chairman, Department of Biology, University of Bern, Switzerland
2000-2010 Editor-in-chief, Ethology
2006-2008 Acting Director, Institute of Zoology, University of Bern, Switzerland
2005-2007 Vice-Dean, Science Faculty, University of Bern, Switzerland
2003-2006 Secretary General, International Council of Ethologists (ICE)
2003-2006 President, Ethologische Gesellschaft e.V.
1997 Theodor-Körner-Förderungspreis, Körner Fonds for Science and Arts, Austria