Our lab uses quantitative approaches to study the evolution of animal social behaviour in natural ecological and social contexts. We translate the computational techniques developed in lab settings for model systems like Drosophila and Zebrafish, including machine vision, automated tracking, and behavioural decomposition, and employ these in more complex field environments like Lake Tanganyika and the Coral Reef. We seek to understand how social and collective interactions are modified by current context, how animals perceive and process social cues, and how environments – both social and physical – are changed as a consequence of animal behaviour. We take a broad approach, combining proximate neurobiological and genetic mechanisms of social behaviour with large-scale ecological outcomes of social influence and collective behaviour. Here are some of our current projects.

The evolution of social behaviour

When complex social structures evolve, what needs to change in terms of the behaviour animals express? Do social animals need to do more, that is, must a richer or more complex behavioural repertoire evolve? Are we as human observers able to detect the potentially subtle ways that behaviour may differ in what appear to be similar contexts? And can machine learning approaches help us in this endeavour?

We ask these questions across a range of systems, from the explosive adaptive radiation in Tanganyikan cichlids, damselfish on Jamaican coral reefs, Trinidadian guppies, and spiders in the Latin American rainforests.

The interaction between physical and social spaces

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill

Screenshot 2019-01-30 at 16.15.06

Animals affect, and are affected by, their environments. This simple relationship means that it is difficult to assess how removing animals from their natural contexts might influence their behavioural expression. We aim to quantify the natural structures in which animals live and interact, and manipulate attributes of these structures to experimentally test their effects.

Recent Publications

Francisco F, Nührenberg, Jordan A. 2019. A low-cost, open-source framework for tracking and behavioural analysis of animals in aquatic ecosystems. Submitted to Movement Ecology

Kohda M, Hotta T, Takeyama T, Yoshimura N, Jordan A. 2019. If a fish can pass the mark test, what are the implications for consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals? PLOS Biology February 7, 2019

Beekman M, Jordan LA. 2017. Does the field of animal personality provide any new insights for behavioural ecology?. Behavioural Ecology (2017) 28 (3): 617-623. DOI:

Jordan LA, Maguire S, Hofmann, HA, Kohda M. 2016. The social and ecological consequences of an ‘over-extended’ phenotype. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283 (1822)


Bodensee Slippers

We’ve been embracing the Konstanz winter by partaking in (sports?) that require various forms of sliding around, as well as dressing up for Fasnacht.


PhD Positions!


We have two PhD positions coming up as part of the IMPRS 2019 and Advanced Centre for the Study of Collectives Call:

The interaction between social behaviour and physical structures in coral reef fishes

We are looking for a candidate to join a diverse and cross-disciplinary research project exploring how the (bio)physical structures that coral reef fishes inhabit influence their social structure and behaviour, and in turn how animal behaviour influences the structural environment around them. Many animals manipulate their environment through processes of ecological engineering or the production of extended phenotypes, and these biophysical structures can in turn modify the type and frequency of social interactions. In order to understand social and behavioural evolution in many taxa, we must therefore consider the reciprocal relationship between animal behaviour and the environment. In marine and aquatic systems human impacts are increasing, and we are therefore interested in asking this question with respect to both natural and artificial (e.g. intentional or accidental anthropogenic) structures.

The successful candidate will be based within the Integrative Field Biology Lab ( at the Max Planck Institute Department of Collective Behaviour ( This project also forms a central part of ‘The Current’, a program focused on ocean science and advocacy within TBA21Academy, which brings together expertise from architecture, conservation policy, art, and science. As such, the candidate will gain experience that spans formal research and scientific communication, with the aim of creating a direct link between ocean research and effective public engagement. The project involves the JordanLab, TBA21 Academy, the Alligator Head Foundation, and the Art Collective SUPERFLEX, and will give the successful candidate a broad range of experience rarely found in PhD candidacy.

The project will be field-based, with observations and experiments conducted with SCUBA employing underwater videography in marine and freshwater environments over long fieldwork periods. Analytically, the project will draw on techniques including machine-learning based animal tracking, behavioural decomposition, and social network analysis. Prospective students should have proficiency in SCUBA (PADI Advanced or equivalent), demonstrated ability in peer-reviewed scientific writing, and an interest in developing programming skills (Python, MATLAB), but also a willingness and ability to engage with non-scientific audiences. The position can begin as early as March 2019 and will be funded for three years, with the possibility of extension through external funding sources. Students will be living in Konstanz, Germany and will be part of the International Max Planck Research School, with extended periods of field work at the Alligator Head Foundation in Jamaica.


Quantitative comparison of behavioural evolution in social fishes

We are looking for a candidate to explore how social behaviour evolves over the adaptive radiation in cichlid fishes. Within this group, many species of shell-dwelling Lamprologines live in identical ecological conditions in the same locations in Lake Tanganyika. However, they differ fundamentally in their degree of social and collective behaviour, with some species living solitary life-histories while others are obligately social and cooperative. We wish to explore which behaviours and socio-cognitive abilities may have evolved in the transition among these social states. For example, does social-group living require the evolution of novel behaviours to resolve social conflicts? Does living in complex groups require differing modes of communication than living solitarily? Do social animals possess increased socio-cognitive skill sets, for example the ability to recognise more individuals or remember interactions with them? Overall, what is required for animals to become social?

This project will involve SCUBA diving field work in Lake Tanganyika, Zambia for extended periods, as well as lab-based experiments. In particular, the lab projects will employ virtual reality based approaches to explore social interactions among fishes. Analytically, the project will draw on techniques including machine-learning based animal tracking, behavioural decomposition, and social network analysis. We aim for an objective quantification of social behaviour and an analysis of the functional significance of different behavioural elements by combining behavioural decomposition with Markov chain analyses and network graph theory. Prospective students should have proficiency or be willing to take courses in SCUBA (to PADI Advanced or equivalent), demonstrated ability in peer-reviewed scientific writing, and be proficient in programming (Python, MATLAB).

The successful candidate will be based within the Integrative Field Biology Lab ( at the Max Planck Institute Department of Collective Behaviour ( The position can begin as early as March 2019 and will be funded for three years, with the possibility of extension through external funding sources. Students will be living in Konstanz, Germany and will be part of the International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS;, with extended periods of field work on the Zambian shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Tanganyika 2018

In the deep heart of Africa once again. Good photos by Jakob and Paul, bad ones and drone ones by Alex!


Canoe Trip

Out on the water for an aquatic “lab meeting”


Collective Behaviour Summer School

Ringberg Castle Retreat

At an Alpine Castle as guests of our friends from MPI Neurobiology


Masters Course

Great projects from our Masters Advanced Course students – Collective Animal Behaviour


Field work in Tanganyika!



A lab trip up to Bern for a hike with the Taborsky Lab


Thesis Defence at Castell Ruine

Ian and Etienne give their thesis proposals at a nice spot in the forest at Ruine Castell, followed by a BBQ and beers.




Our Team

We’re a diverse bunch, from out-and-out field biologists, computational ethologists, to neuroanatomists. Whatever our expertise, we are all fascinated by the evolution and mechanisms of animal behaviour, and go out of our way to observe our systems and species in their natural settings.

Backed up by the analytical might of the Department of Collective Behaviour at the Max Planck Institute, we aim for an integrative and highly-quantitative understanding of behaviour. For details on the specifics of our research projects and what each member is up to, please hop over to our page at

Lab Members

Alex Böhm (MSc Student)


The Boominator

Aneesh Bose (Postdoc)


Aneesh comes from a background of flipping rocks and bothering the inhabitants he finds underneath. Often this occurs during their most intimate and private times of life. He continues this, now underwater and attempting to do so en masse.

R. Ian Etheredge (PhD)


Ian is a Renaissance man, combining insights and techniques from Da Vinci, Darwin, Turing, and Bob Ross to paint a picture of biological beauty like no other. He also sometimes (often) wears cowboy boots to the lab, so we’ve elected him a safety officer for setting such a good footwear example.

Fritz Francisco (MSc)


Fritz  got too drunk at a pirate metal gig one night, and we found him the next morning in our labs attempting to finish his set with a guitar crudely constructed from old nets and a drum kit of empty food containers. It actually sounded pretty good so we kept him.

Sylvia Garza (MSc)


Sylvia joined the lab all the way back in 2013, when the Texas sun had to be fought off with strong Tequila. Now we’ve come all the way to Konstanz, where the German cold has to be fought off with strong Schnapps. So, not much has changed.

Zoë Goverts (BSc)

Diver extraordinnaire

Jakob Gübel (MSc)


Jakob works in the Middle-Eastern desert in the summer, where it’s 45 degrees Celsius in the shade. He goes there to study spiders, but come on, there are spiders on the trees outside my office, and we have beer in the fridge. It also seems he cannot swim. This last point is even more problematic now that he has joined the Tanganyika team.

Myriam Knöpfle (MSc)



Etienne Lein (PhD)


Etienne is mad for fish brains, like some kind of piscine zombie. He also loves social structure and interaction networks, and has many dear enemies. For some reason he has zero web presence, so on searching for him you instead find the second best Welsh footballer holding a chicken.

Alex Jordan (PI)


Alex is like the Ninja Turtle, Raphael, in the famous track “Turtle Power“. If you’re interested, there’s more information about Alex here.

Lukas Koch (MSc)


Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the bowers and pits of the Lamrologines might be. Lukas knows, but he mostly speaks to fish so we have no idea.

Paul Nührenberg (MSc)


Paul only joined the lab because of the martial arts links we have, so we randomly attack him in the hallways, typically with Wu-Tang samples. He re-encodes them as semi-sentient automatons, which causes all sorts of problems for basic lab management.

Rosanna Stolberg (BSc)


In this photo Rosanna is cleverly using both hands to reel out the ROV, but it seems her bendy-appendaged fish are not as versatile.

Karina Weiler (BSc)


If someone is clever enough to jump off bridges in their spare time, can they really be trusted to judge the behaviour of a fish? No. That’s why Karina uses computers and machine learning and other things that go ‘Bing!’ to help. Also she’s a Divemaster so perhaps jumping into that river isn’t such a bad idea for her.

Johannes Windorfer (BSc)


Ana Zaalishvili (MSc)


Affiliated folks and co-supervised students

Anja Wegner (Affiliated MSc Center for Interdisciplinary Researrch Paris)


Mariana Rodriguez (Affiliated PhD Hofmann Lab UT Austin)


Mariana “Mad Dog” Rodriguez is a PhD student in the Hofmann Lab that was simply too good to leave behind in the badlands of Texas, so we bring her to the Alps to cool off when we can.

Shoyo Sato (Affiliated PhD Giribet Lab Harvard)


Shoyo decided to forgo a prestigious research institute like the Max Planck and has now ended up at a university no one has ever heard of… Harland I think, or perhaps Karvard? Anyway, he remains an affiliate lab member and studies the evolution of social behaviour in spiders.

Simon Gingins (Affiliated Postdoc Couzin Lab)


Like all good Swiss, Simon endeavours to accelerate down hills as quickly as he can manage. Luckily his diving does not follow the same pattern, and he manages to stay within safe limits and get back to the surface to show us his fantastic photos.

Ash Parker (Extended network – Baier Lab, MPI Neurobiology)


Talk about a common name… I can’t find the real Ash Parker anywhere on the web. Probably because she’s sitting in dark rooms waiting for baby cichlids to open their eyes and explore the world.

Qiaoyi Liang (Extended network – Baldwin Lab, MPI Ornithology)


In the institutional sense, Qiaoyi is a sister from another mister… well in this case miss. Or Frau. Actually it’s doctor in Maude’s case, but that doesn’t rhyme. Anyway you get the idea. Maybe.

Lab Alumni

Sofia Rodriguez-Brenes (Postdoc)

Sofia is a field biologist, and one of the best around. She is also the only person I know to take an umbrella into the most dangerous rainforest in the world.

Jian Zhao (PhD)

Jian is like a Mother Gaia for fish, wanting to ensure all are fed and nurtured in the best possible way. By using robots. And laser beams.



Manuel Wildner (co-advised with Prof Oliver Deussen, Uni Konstanz Computer Science)

Manuel makes video games with fish, but the incentive structure kind of sucks. At least there are no micro-transactions.

Jacqueline Dettinger (BSc)


Paradoxically, Jacqueline is simultaneously our most junior and most senior member, being one of the first people to join the lab when we started in Konstanz. She puts fish in dark rooms and watches their every move with infra-red cameras. Creepy.

Ivo Neufert (BSc)


Ivo loves Shakira and was in the front row of her concert as a younger man. He plays with conditional mating strategies. Enough said.

Kai Schleifer (BSc)

What can I say. Times are tough and children are cheaper to employ than adults. Also Kai has a sweet blue/red eye dichromatism, which scares the hell out of other kids and may explain why he hangs around the spider lab so much.

Anka Pöhl (BSc)


Anka is looking for fish in a dried our riverbed full of hippos, but at least she has a giant telephoto lens so might be able to spot something without being eaten.

Elina Rittelman (BSc)


Ever had a dream where fish had little swords and shields and went to war with each other? No? Well Elina has.

Tim Singer (BSc)


Tim was at a McDonalds late one night when some rough folks came through. Huddling close to his friends for protection he realised that risk can fundamentally alter social relationships.

Field Sites

Lake Tanganyika

Our main field site is Lake Tanganyika, one of the Rift Lakes in central Africa. These lakes are exceptional sites for research into the evolution of social systems, effectively being replicate evolutionary experiments writ large (Lake Tanganyika is the 2nd largest lake in the world, containing 18% of the world’s freshwater). Although challenging to access, the Rift Lakes have been dubbed “Darwin’s Dreamponds” because they provide an unparalleled opportunity to understand evolutionary processes, and are one of the most valuable biological research resources on the planet. At Lake Tanganyika, our group studies how groups and collectives of social fish interact to overcome the most pressing ecological challenges – detecting and avoiding predators, searching for areas of food and shelter, and finding mates. With some very fancy technical approaches using machine vision and tracking, we conduct detailed studies of the behavioural and neural mechanisms that allow these animals to communicate and coordinate their behaviour, potentially harnessing emergent behaviours that exceed the abilities of single individuals.

Coral Reefs – The Red Sea, Great Barrier Reef, and Mediterranean

No proper tropical fish biology lab would be complete without some work on coral reefs. In the Red Sea and the Great Barrier Reef, we study how groups of damselfish form and interact, and what the consequences of differing group structure may be on ecological processes. In the Red Sea we work out of Eilat, with the Inter-University Institute, on the Barrier Reef have worked from One Tree Island Research Station, and we are currently starting a research program in the Mediterranean.

Rainforests in the Darien Gap

We study social spider behaviour in the rainforests of Panama and Colombia, having first visited to study Tungara frogs. The Darien Gap is a particularly rich biological resource, having been protected from logging and tourism by the conflict between FARC Guerillas and government forces for many years. With careful planning and a sense of adventure it is possible to explore these forests and work in some of the most remote and undisturbed areas of forest in the world.

Deserts in the Middle East

Our work on social spiders also takes us into the Negev desert, where temperatures regularly reach upwards of 40 degrees Celsius. Here we study how groups of spiders live together and resolve conflict over home site selection and hunting strategy.

Local sites – Lake Konstanz and the Rhein

Closer to home, we are always finding reasons to get into the water and study local fish species. The Bodensee is a wonderful spot to test out ideas and techniques, and also convenient for a drink in the numerous beer gardens after a day’s work.



Alex Jordan
Principal Investigator
Department of Collective Behaviour
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology
University of Konstanz, Germany
Office – Z817
Phone – +49 7531 885161


Alex Jordan
Senior Research Fellow
Department of Integrative Biology
1 University Station C0990
University of Texas at Austin
Austin TX 78712
Office – Patterson 113
Phone – +1 512 475-6164