Press releases


Sep 7 2016

Older Cranes Lead the Way to New Migration Patterns

Age Before Youth

Whooping cranes are changing migration patterns in response to climate and land use change, and these new patterns are being determined by the older, more experienced,  members of the population.  

Researchers from Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, the Goethe University Frankfurt, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Maryland, and the International Crane Foundation investigated a behavior known as “shortstopping,” which is the shortening of a migration route by shifting wintering grounds toward the breeding grounds. 

Shortstopping can benefit migrating birds by decreasing the amount of energy that they use on long distance flights. They also can arrive at the breeding grounds earlier, which can be beneficial. This requires that the birds find suitable overwintering sites closer to breeding grounds, and due to climate and land use change, suitable sites can now be found at higher latitudes.

“Our results show that when migratory groups winter closer to the breeding grounds, the first groups to use these new sites include older birds. For each additional year of age of the oldest bird in the group, the distance between breeding and wintering grounds was reduced by 40 km, or almost 25 miles,” said Claire Teitelbaum, a Senckenberg & Goethe University Frankfurt researcher, and lead author of the study.  “We also found that site familiarity may be an important factor in where migratory groups short-stop. Older birds often chose overwintering sites which they were familiar with from previous migrations.”

The population studied is a reintroduced population, established by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. In 2001, the Partnership began releasing captive-reared birds and teaching them to migrate using ultralight aircraft. The research results show that the shortstopping behavior has been developed by older birds but has then been passed to younger birds: In 2006, no 1-year-old birds shortstopped, but by 2015, 75 percent of them did so.

The more northerly wintering sites that birds are choosing also have particular characteristics. Northerly wintering sites are more likely than southerly sites to be under cultivation, and have also experienced more warming since 1900.  Grain can be an important source of food for cranes, but grain is only available if it isn’t covered by snow. According to the researchers, in this case, it might be that a combination of climate change and land-use change is facilitating changes in species ranges. 

“We found that migratory species are able to innovate new migration behaviors, possibly because of their long-term memory and ability to learn from experience,” said Thomas Mueller, a professor at Senckenberg & Goethe University and coauthor of the study. “We also identified two potential external explanations for the changing patterns, which were grain cover as a food source, and temperature changes.”

Shortstopping in this population occurs to a vastly greater degree than in the remnant wild population, which migrates between northern Canada and the Gulf coast of Texas.

“While the availability of grain and warmer temperatures allows birds to survive winters farther north, only the reintroduced population is really taking advantage of that” said Sarah Converse a research ecologist with USGS and a coauthor of the paper.

Converse went on to say “The developing culture of this young population might provide more room for innovations like short-stopping. By contrast, the culture of the remnant population is relatively old, and innovation might be less common. Some populations and species are much more likely to struggle to adapt to climate and land-use change than these Whooping Cranes are.”

Researchers used a 14 year data-set of 175 individual whooping cranes to study what was driving shortstopping in the population.



Sep 6 2016

German economics association “Verein für Socialpolitik” honors Frankfurt economist

Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln has been awarded the Gossen Prize

Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, Professor of Macroeconomics and Development at Goethe University Frankfurt’s House of Finance, has been awarded the Gossen Prize 2016. The economist (44) received the most important German economics award during the annual meeting of the Verein für Socialpolitik in Augsburg on Monday evening. The Gossen Prize is awarded every year to a German speaking economist who has gained international reputation for his or her research. The most important criterion are publications in internationally renowned research journals.

Monika Schnitzer, Chair of the Verein für Socialpolitik, acknowledged in her laudatory speech the significant empirical research contributions of Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln in the areas of political economics, economics of household decisions and development economics.

Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln investigates mainly the behavior of private households with respect to consumption, savings and labor supply as well as the endogeneity of preferences. Her work has been published i. a. in the American Economic Review, the Quarterly Journal of Economics and Science. Since 2009, Fuchs-Schündeln holds a chair at Goethe University where she also contributes to the Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders” as a Principal Investigator and to the Research Center “Sustainable Architecture for Finance in Europe” (SAFE) as a Program Director. The past twelve months she spend at Stanford University, California, as a guest professor. In 2010, Fuchs-Schündeln received a starting grant of the European Research Council, one of the most important scientific awards in the European Union. Before coming to Frankfurt she held positions at the universities of Harvard and Yale in the U.S.

The award, which is endowed with 10,000 euros, is named after the Prussian lawyer Hermann Heinrich Gossen (1810­–1858). Although hardly noticed at that time due to its mathematical nature, his book “Die Entwicklung der Gesetze des menschlichen Verkehrs, und der daraus fließenden Regeln für menschliches Handeln” (“The Development of the Laws of Human Interaction and the Resulting Rules of Human Behavior”) has prepared the ground for modern marginalist theory.



Aug 31 2016

Physicist Claudius Gros on the journey of an automated gene laboratory to celestial bodies outside our solar system

The Genesis Project: New life on exoplanets

FRANKFURT.Can life be brought to celestial bodies outside our solar system which are not permanently inhabitable? This is the question with which Professor Dr. Claudius Gros from the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Goethe University Frankfurt is dealing in an essay which will shortly appear in the scientific journal Astrophysics and Space Science.

Over the last years, the search for exoplanets has shown that very different types exist. “It is therefore certain that we will discover a large number of exoplanets which are inhabitable intermittently but not permanently. Life would indeed be possible on these planets, but it would not have the time to grow and develop independently”, says Gros. Against this background, he has investigated whether it would be possible to bring life to planets with transient habitability.

From a technical standpoint, the Genesis mission could already be achieved within a few decades with the aid of interstellar unmanned micro spacecraft which could be both accelerated and slowed down passively. On arrival, an automated gene laboratory on board the probe would synthesize a selection of single-cell organisms with the aim of establishing an ecosphere of unicellular organisms on the target planet. This could subsequently develop autonomously and possibly also into complex life forms. “In this way, we could jump the approximately four billion years which had been necessary on Earth to reach the Precambrian stage of development out of which the animal world developed about 500 million years ago”, explains Gros. In order not to endanger any life which might already be present, Genesis probes would only head for uninhabited exoplanets.

The mission’s actual duration played no role in the Genesis project, since the time scales for the subsequent geo-evolutionary development of the target planet lies in the range between a few tens of millions and a hundred million years. The Genesis project therefore has no direct benefit for people on Earth. “It would, however, enable us to give life something back”, says Gros. In this context, he is also discussing whether biological incompatibilities would have to be expected in the case that a second Earth fully developed in terms of evolution were to be colonized. “That seems, however, at present to be highly unlikely”, says the physicist, dampening any too high expectations.


Publication: Claudius Gros, Developing Ecospheres on Transiently Habitable Planets: The Genesis Project, Astrophysics and Space Science (in press);

Interview with Claudius Gros: How to Jumpstart Life Elsewhere in Our Galaxy, The Atlantic,

Information: Prof. Claudius Gros, Institut für Theoretische Physik, Campus Riedberg, Tel.: (069)-798 47818,


Aug 29 2016

Fundamental structural difference to earlier models

Alzheimer fibrils at atomic resolution

FRANKFURT.Elongated fibres (fibrils) of the beta-amyloid protein form the typical senile plaques present in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease. A European research team and a team from the United States (Massachussetts Institute of Technology in cooperation with Lund University) have simultaneously succeeded in elucidating the structure of the most disease-relevant beta-amyloid peptide 1–42 fibrils at atomic resolution. This simplifies the targeted search for drugs to treat Alzheimer's dementia.

Alzheimer's disease is responsible for at least 60 percent of dementia cases worldwide. It causes enormous human suffering and high costs. A cure or causal therapy are not yet available. A reason for this is that the exact course of the illness in the brain at a molecular level has not yet been adequately clarified.

It is known that the beta-amyloid peptide plays a crucial role. This peptide, 39 to 42 amino acids long, is toxic to nerve cells and is able to form elongated fibrils. Beta-amyloid peptide 1–42 and beta-amyloid peptide 1-40 are the two main forms that appear in senile plaques. We do not know why these lead to the decay of nerve cells in the brain, but this question is very interesting for the development of medications to treat Alzheimer's disease.

In a joint project between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the University of Lyon, and the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, in cooperation with colleagues at the University of Irvine and the Brookhaven National Laboratory, researchers have succeeded in determining the structure of a beta-amyloid peptide 1–42 fibril at an atomic resolution. This fibril presents the greatest danger in this disease. The researchers built on earlier research on the structure of beta-amyloid monomers done at the University of Chicago. Further immunological examinations show that the investigated form of the fibrils is especially relevant to the illness.

Protein fibrils are visible in electron microscope images (Fig. 1), but it is very difficult to go to an atomic level of detail. The standard methods used in structural biology to achieve this assume that the macromolecule is present as a single crystal or in the form of individual molecules that are dissolved in water. However, fibrils are elongated structures that adhere to each other and neither form crystals, nor can be dissolved in water.

Only solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (solid-state NMR) is capable of offering a view at the atomic level in this case. New developments in methods made it possible to measure a network of distances between the atoms in the protein molecules that make up a fibril (Fig. 2). Extensive calculations enabled the atomic structure of the fibril to be reconstructed from these measurements.

The main part of the beta-amyloid 1-42 peptide is shaped like a double horseshoe (Fig. 3). Pairs of identical molecules form layers, which are stacked onto each other to form a long fibril. Numerous hydrogen bonds parallel to the long axis lend the fibrils their high stability.

"The structure differs fundamentally from earlier model studies, for which barely any experimental measurement data was available." explains Prof Peter Güntert, professor of computational structural biology at Goethe University.

The publications released by the two teams, which confirm each other, have caused excitement in expert circles, as they enable a targeted, structure-based search for medicines that will attack the beta-amyloid fibrils. The researchers hope that this scourge of old age, first described 110 years ago by the Frankfurt-based physician Alois Alzheimer, will finally be defeated over the next one or two decades.




Wälti, M. A., Ravotti, F., Arai, H., Glabe, C., Wall, J., Böckmann, A., Güntert, P., Meier, B. H. & Riek, R. Atomic-resolution structure of a disease-relevant Aβ(1-42) amyloid fibril. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, DOI 10.1073/pnas.1600749113.

Colvin, M. T., Silvers, R., Ni, Q. Z., Can, T. V., Sergeyev, I., Rosay, M., Donovan, K. J., Michael, B., Wall, J., Linse, S. & Griffin, R. G. Atomic resolution structure of monomorphic Aβ42 amyloid fibrils. Journal of the American Chemical Society, DOI 10.1021/jacs.6b05129.

Xiao, Y., Ma, B., McElheny, D., Parthasarathy, S., Long, F., Hoshi, M., Nussinov, R. & Ishii, Y. Aβ(1–42) fibril structure illuminates self-recognition and replication of amyloid in Alzheimer’s disease. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology 22, 499–505 (2015).

Images are available for download here:


Fig. 1: Electron microscope image of Alzheimer fibrils

Fig. 2: Network of distance measurements in the protein molecule

Fig. 3: Structure of the amyloid-beta 1–42 fibrils


Information: Prof. Peter Güntert, Institut of Biophysical Chemistry, Campus Riedberg, Tel.: (069)-798-29621,



Jun 28 2016

Telling smells from the latrine

Urban rabbits distance themselves more from their neighbours

FRANKFURT. What are the neighbours up to? The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) can tell from the smell of their latrines, which mark the boundary of their territory like a fence. Latrines located near their own burrow, on the other hand, serve to exchange information within the group. As a group of researchers at Goethe University has now discovered, urban rabbits use the latrines along the territorial boundary more often and thus display a greater need to segregate themselves from their neighbours.

Rabbits communicate with each other via scents in their urine or faeces. By snuffling at the latrine, they learn everything there is to know about the age, gender or social status of the other users. Urban rabbits, however, demonstrate a completely different behaviour to that of their rural brethren when using the latrines, as Madlen Ziege, doctoral researcher in the Ecology and Evolution Working Group at Goethe University reports in the current issue of the “BMC Ecology” online journal.

Whilst wild rabbits in the countryside deposit more latrines in close proximity to their burrows and also use these more often, their relatives in the city behave quite differently. Along the rural-to-urban gradient, researchers not only found a particularly large number of latrines along territorial boundaries, i.e. quite a distance away from the burrow, but also signs that these were used more frequently than those right next to the burrow. “The depositing of latrines as a means of communication between neighbouring social groups in order, for example, to demarcate territory, is therefore particularly significant amongst wild rabbits in Frankfurt’s inner city,” explains Madlen Ziege.

Findings from earlier studies deliver a good explanation for these observations: In the centre of Frankfurt only a few wild rabbits – often even just one or a pair – live in a burrow. However, burrow and rabbit population densities are very high here and thus also the competition for resources. Clear segregation from the neighbours seems to be of particular importance here, whilst “internal” communication in a group which is anyhow small is less important. In the countryside surrounding Frankfurt, by contrast, large social groups inhabit extensive burrow systems; burrow and rabbit population densities are comparatively low here. Communication within the same social group is consequently of greater importance.

Publication: Ziege M, Bierbach D, Bischoff S, Brandt A–L, Brix M, Greshake B, Merker S, Wenninger S, Wronski T, Plath M (2016) Importance of latrine communication in European rabbits shifts along a rural–to–urban gradient. BMC Ecology,

Information: Madlen Ziege, Ecology and Evolution Working Group, Riedberg Campus, Tel.: 0157 73883101,