People in the Spotlight: Austrian Scientist of the Year Kurt Kotrschal - Works with Wolves | read more...
Office of Science & Technology - Kurt Kotrschal: Works with Wolves
People in the Spotlight: Kurt Kotrschal
Kurt Kotrschal: Works with Wolves
Prof. Kurt Kotrschal and his wolves.
Prof. Kurt Kotrschal
, who was elected Austrian Scientist of the Year 2010 for his
ability to communicate science to the public, amicably reminds me at the beginning of our interview that we humans are animals (in case one should forget while surfing the Internet and engaging in other sophisticated activities).
Not only do we share evolutionary traits with apes, our closest primate relatives, but also with many other species such as birds and wolves.
Kotrschal, a behavioral biologist who, since 1990, has headed the Konrad-Lorenz Research Center for Ethology in Grünau, Upper Austria, focuses his research mainly on the social behavior of ravens, Greylag geese, and wolves.
selected these species because of their social behavior with each other, but also towards humans.
"Looking at birds' and wolves' social complexity and cognition offers valuable clues to human behavior," he
says, "because all of them have complicated social lives like we do.
After Lorenz' death in 1989, Kotrschal
succeeded him as director of the research center, continuing Lorenz' groundbreaking work in social dynamics.
Working with wolves, however, is a fairly new approach.
Thanks to the initiative of a group of people at the University of Vienna
, in October 2010 the Wolf Science Center
in Ernstbrunn (approx. 40 km north of Vienna) opened its doors under the leadership of Kotrschal
colleagues Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi.
At the moment, 11 wolves and 10 dogs call the Wolf Science
Center their home, but Kotrschal plans to increase the number to 20 of each species by the end of 2011.
More than €800,000 has been invested so far in the scientific facilities at the Wolf Science Center
, with much of the funding being provided by private sponsors.
According to Kotrschal
, most private sponsors are fascinated by the appeal of the wolves and contribute money for the buildings and test instruments.
explains that wolves have to be socialized for this purpose: "Most of the wolves we are working with are hand-raised.
stresses the importance of social competence in both species: "One of the basic principles is that the best thing to do is not to apply force towards your interest, but the best thing to do is social competence.
Partly, says Kotrschal
People who visit the Wolf Science Center are defined by Kotrschal as "Wolf-Aficionados," either already upon their arrival, or at least by the time they leave the Wolf Science Center.
Fascination with the mysterious animal goes as far as people inquiring about keeping a wolf as a pet - but this affection might go a little too far.
While there is not much evolutionary change from wolves to dogs, they show significant differences.
Whereas dogs enjoy interactions with humans, even socialized wolves stay rather cool towards people, keep some distance, and only interact with them if they can see a benefit.
"A wolf is not an animal you really want to live with," says Kotrschal
career evolution included fish, geese ...
has been interested in animals since his
always wanted to work with animals and so studied biology at the University of Salzburg
, where he
focused on the biology of fish.
took over the Konrad Lorenz Research Station
in 1990, animal behavior research became his
Although Lorenz and Kotrschal
never met in person, Kotrschal
says that his work has been influenced by Lorenz's publications and books: "Not everything he wrote is still accurate in the light of the present knowledge, but he was an excellent communicator and he suggested so many behavioral principles.
At about the same time, Kotrschal also accepted a position as associate professor of behavioral biology at the University of Vienna.
Teaching is very important to him, since it is at universities that young people are introduced to the scientific method.
enjoys getting together with students to shape their brains: "It's not so much about facts, or knowledge.
had taken on all these responsibilities, his
way also led to the United States.
In 1984 he
received a Max-Kade Scholarship and studied the evolution of skulls and jaws of fish at the Fish Collection of the University of Tucson
Five years later, just before he was called back to Vienna to direct the Konrad Lorenz Research Station, a Schrödinger Scholarship supported his research on the chemical sensing system of fish at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.
Kotrschal points out how important his
research stay in the US was at that time, and notices how the situation for scientists has changed over the years: "Back then, the US was really the Mecca for science.
It was simply mandatory to have a research stay in the US.
This has changed quite a bit.
The European Research Area has created a much better scientific environment for researchers in Europe today.
recalls excellent academic experiences in the US and remembers a wonderful time there.
is still in contact with many behavioral biologists in the US.
Kotrschal adopted his knowledge of how to handle wolves in large part from Erich Klinghammer, who is director of the Wolf Park in Indiana.
is in contact with them on nearly a daily basis.
Communications is key
In January, Kotrschal was awarded Austria's "Scientist of the Year 2010" award by the Austrian Club of Education and Science Journalists.
This award is presented annually to scientists who make science understandable to the general public.
Informing people about his
research activities has always been an important part of Kortschal's work over the last 20 years: "I was always convinced that if you do research that is funded by public money, then you are kind of obliged to tell the public what you are doing.
In addition to peer-reviewed publications and public talks, Kotrschal
makes the relevance of behavioral biology to human social life accessible to Austrians by writing a bimonthly column in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse