The Hilgendorf Lecture

Hilgendorf_kleinThe Hilgendorf Lecture series promotes evolutionary thinking across disciplines. Internationally renowned scientists present their latest work or show where evolutionary thinking can inform other research areas. The lecture is open to the public and addresses undergraduate and advanced students, postdocs and members of staff from various fields.


The lecture is named after Franz M. Hilgendorf (1834-1904), a palaeontologist from Tübingen who, in 1863, constructed the first empirical phylogenetic tree of fossil organisms using snail shells. He thus provided the first fossil proof of gradual evolution and speciation as proposed by Darwin’s theory of evolution.


Detailed information for speakers

Detailed information for hosts


Lectures take place on Wednesdays, 17:15 - 19:00, in lecture hall S320, Hölderlinstraße 12, Tübingen (Geosciences).

Forthcoming talks (WiSe 2017/2018)

Oct 18


Hervé Bocherens,
EVEREST students



















Note exceptional location: Lecture hall N10, Auf der Morgenstelle 3 (Botany building)

Prof. Mikael Fortelius (Department of Geosciences and Geography, University of Helsinki)

Environments and mammal communities in the East African Plio-Pleistocene

Ecometrics is a computational methodology focusing on the identification and modeling of functional relationships between traits of organisms and their environments. Ecometrics can be used for reconstructing past climate and environments, understanding evolution of faunal communities of macroevolution patterns, and understanding functional relationships between organisms and their environments. Different traits have been explored for ecometric analysis, teeth of mammalian herbivores being among the most commonly applied to date. Recent work suggests that the main ecometric signal of mammalian teeth is related to ecological limits rather than to average environmental conditions.
Although ecometric methods have been used to analyse fossil mammal faunas and environments of Eurasia and North America, such methods have not yet been applied to the rich fossil mammal record of eastern Africa. Here we report results from analysis of a combined dataset spanning east and west Turkana from Kenya between 7 and 1 million years ago (Ma). We provide temporally and spatially resolved estimates of temperature and precipitation and discuss their relationship to patterns of faunal change, and propose a new hypothesis to explain the lack of a temperature trend.
We suggest that the regionally arid Turkana Basin may between 4 and 2 Ma have acted as a ‘species factory’, generating ecological adaptations in advance of the global trend. We show a persistent difference between the eastern and western sides of the Turkana Basin and suggest that the wetlands of the shallow eastern side could have provided additional humidity to the terrestrial ecosystems. Pending further research, a transient episode of faunal change centred at the time of the KBS Member (1.87–1.53 Ma), may be equally plausibly attributed to taphonomic factors, to climate change, or to a top-down ecological cascade initiated by the entry of technologically sophisticated humans.

Nov 10


Katharina Foerster







Note exceptional time and location: Alte Aula (Münzgasse 30), 16:30 - 17:30

Prof. Virpii Lummaa (Human Life History Group, Univ. of Turku Finland)

Natural selection in contemporary human populations

Recent social and cultural adaptations have cast doubt on the continued relevance of Darwinian selection in humans. Yet, in both traditional and industrialized societies, differences among individuals still lead to selection favouring certain heritable traits because although survival to old age can be high, not everyone has the same family size and many forego reproduction altogether. This coupled with heritable traits linked to differences in reproductive rate might lead to rapid changes in the genetic makeup of populations. However, few studies have examined how the modern environment itself fuels evolution, and how the recent drastic demographic shifts to low birth and death rates have affected the opportunity for selection or specific trait selection. I use longitudinal demographic data from Finland spanning 300 years and >12 generations to investigate how the strength and direction of selection on key fitness traits changed with the modernization of society.


Dec 06


Nils Anthes,
Nico Michiels














Dr. Wolfgang Forstmeier (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen Germany)

How research on mate choice in zebra finches reveals weaknesses in our scientific method

The zebra finch is one of the most frequently studied organisms in terms of its mate choice, which is reflected in more than 150 published empirical studies. However, after studying zebra finch mate choice in several captive populations (both domesticated and recently wild-derived) for 15 years, I here argue that most of the published literature is misleading because of psychological biases (such as confirmation and publication bias). I believe that this is because we have started our research under the plausible assumption that both sexes are choosy and that both sexes recognize and prefer high-quality individuals over low-quality individuals. Yet this assumption has never been tested in a rigorous and unbiased way, but rather we have naively interpreted chance findings of p<0.05 that arise in nearly every exploratory study of multiple traits in a way that is consistent with our assumption (confirmation bias). More rigorous tests, that give the null hypothesis a fair chance, show surprisingly little evidence that zebra finches can recognize and prefer high-quality individuals. Moreover, zebra finches show remarkably little consensus among individuals on who is the most attractive. I argue that such consensus may not have evolved in this lifetime monogamous species, maybe because the sum of all costs (including costs of competition for the most attractive individual) were larger than the sum of all possible benefits (good genes, attractive offspring, and good parent benefits). This example shows that our science can be highly inefficient in cases where the null hypothesis is actually true, mostly because researchers are intrinsically biased against the null hypothesis due to psychological and monetary rewards. For a more efficient science we need to change both our methods and the incentives given to researchers.

Feb 07


Katerina Harvati













Dr. Philipp Mitteröcker (Department of Theoretical Biology, Univ. Vienna Austria)

Why is human childbirth so difficult? Obstetrics and the evolution of labor

The incidence of obstructed labor in humans is strikingly high, in the range of 3-6% worldwide, mostly resulting from the disproportion of the mother's pelvic dimensions and the newborn's head. Mortality and morbidity due to this disproportion imposes a strong – and partly persisting – selection pressure. The question why natural selection has not led to a wider female birth canal and reduced obstructed labor remains a puzzle in evolutionary anthropology.
    I present a new model that explains the high rate of obstructed labor by the specific properties of the selection scenario involved in human childbirth. Drawing from epidemiology and evolutionary quantitative genetics, the model allows for an estimation of the strength of selection on neonatal and maternal dimensions. I show how moderate directional selection suffices to account for the high rates of cephalopelvic disproportion and discuss why selection is unable to reduce these rates. Furthermore, the model predicts a considerable evolutionary response of pelvic and/or neonatal dimensions resulting from the regular use of Caesarean sections, and it also explains the intergenerational “inheritance” of Caesarean delivery. This illustrates the importance of evolutionary theory to understand biosocial and epidemiological change in modern societies.

Previous talks


  • Ille Gebeshuber (University of Vienna, Austria), "What is a physicist doing in the jungle? Biomimetics of the rainforest"
  • Robin Dennell (University of Exeter, UK), "Homo sapiens outside Africa: the history of an invasive species"
  • Fernando Maestre (Dryland Ecology and Global Change Lab, Univ. of Madrid, Spain), "Biotic controls of ecosystem functioning in global drylands under global change"
  • Alexandra Klein, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, "Managing biodiversity to promote pollination services - how to increase biodiversity and why it is important for wild and managed ecosystems"


  • Redouan Bshary, Université de Neuchatel, Switzerland, "Marine cleaning mutualism: game theory meets mechanisms"
  • Mietje Germonpre, Roy. Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, "The early beginnings of the Upper Palaeolithic domestication of the dog"
  • Markus Bastir, National History Museum Madrid, Spain, "Evolution, form and function of the human respiratory system"
  • Christoph Randler, Tübingen University, "Chronotype, individual differences and the biological basis of morning/evening-orientation – Is  there a link with evolutionary aspects in humans?"
  •  Wil Roebroeks Leiden University, Netherlands, "The peopling of Pleistocene Europe - with or without fire?"


  • Bob Wong, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, "Behavioural Responses to a changing world: evolutionary and ecological consequences"
  •  John R. Pannell, University of Lausanne, Switzerland, "Evolution and implications of gender strategies in plants"
  • Stephen Frost, Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon, US: "Monkey Business: global climatic change and its relationship to primate and human evolutions"
  • Bruce MacFadden, Biology, Geological Sciences, and Latin American Studies, University of Florida, USA: "Fossil horses: Icons of evolution and exhibits"
  • Ariel Novoplansky, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel: "Ecological implications of plant communication"
  • Anne Christine Utne Palm, Institute of Marine Research, Norway: "A breath taking little fish - exploiting extreme environments and redressing the balance in an overfished ecosystem"


  • Prof. Christina Warinner, Department of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma, USA: "Reconstructing our ancient microbial self"
  • Prof. Sönke Johnsen, Biology department, Duke University, USA: "Hide and seek in the open sea"
  • Prof. Jonathan Silvertown, Evolutionary Ecology, University of Edinburgh, Scotland: "The Crowd and the Cloud: Re-inventing Natural History for the 21st Century"
  • Prof. Anne Magurran, Centre for Biological Diversity, University of St Andrews, Scottland: "Biological Diversity in a Changing World"
  • Prof. Nicole M. van Dam, German Centre for Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig: "Herbivore-induced responses in roots and shoots: What comes up, must go down?"
  • Prof. Peter Gärdenfors, Cognitive Sciences, University of Lund, Sweden: "How Homo became docens: On the evolution of teaching"
  • Prof. Charlotta Kvarnemo, Biology & Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Sweden: "Pregnant pipefish males: Care & brood reduction"
  • Anna-Liisa Lain,  Metapopulation Research Group, Helsinki: "Uncovering Determinants of Disease Dynamics in a wild Host-Pathogen Metapopulation"


  • Keith Hobson, Canadian Wildlife Service, Saskatoon, Canada: "Tracking animal migration using stable isotopes."
  • Kenneth B. Storey, Molecular Physiology Department, Ottawa, Canada: "The living Dead: Metabolic Arrest and the Control of Biological Time"
  • Jan Benda, Neuroethology, University of Tübingen:"Electrosensory fish in their environment -from Neuroscience to Ecology"
  • Rosemary Gillespie, Univ California Berkeley, United States: "Community Assembly through Adaptive Radiation: Spiders on Islands"
  • Aubrey de Grey, SENS Research Foundation,Mountain View, California, United States:Mitochondrial DNA: evolutionary insights into future therapies for aging
  • Detlef Weigel, MPI Dev Biol Tübingen: Origins and consequences of genetic and epigenetic variation in Arabidopsis thaliana


  • Tracey Chapman, Univ East Anglia: Sexual conflict and competition: molecules, mechanisms and evolutionary change
  • Jacob Weiner, Univ Copenhagen: Evolutionary Agroecology - applying evolutionary theory to plant production
  • Walter Federle, Univ Cambridge: Slippery surfaces and skillful climbers: biomechanics and ecology of insect-plant interactions
  • Nicole Dubilier, MPI Marine Microbiol, Bremen: From deep sea hydrothermal vents to coral reef sediments: the remarkable diversity of symbioses between chemosynthetic bacteria and marine invertebrates
  • Paul Brakefield, Univ Cambridge: From a model species to exploring adaptive radiations in butterflies
  • Andrei Lupas, MPI Dev Biol Tübingen: The origin of folded proteins
  • Bill Rice, Univ Calif Santa Barbara: A new form of intragenomic conflict between sex chromosomes
  • Jens Krause, Leibniz-Inst. Freshwater Ecol & Inland Fisheries Berlin: Collective Behaviour and Swarm Intelligence
  • Helmut Segner, Univ Bern: Why has ecotoxicology left no mark in ecology? A personal view


  • David Lordkipanidze, Georgian National Museum: The hominins of Dmanisi and the earliest peopling of Eurasia
  • Michael Herdy, INPRO Berlin: Optimization of industrial processes using principles of evolution
  • Hans-Dieter Sues, Natl Mus Nat Hist, Washington: The end-Triassic Mass Extinction in Continental Ecosystems
  • Janis Antonovics, Univ Virginia: Linnaeus, Darwin and the Germ Theory of Disease
  • Paul Koch, Univ Santa Cruz: The Rise and Fall of Elephant Seal Breeding Colonies on Antarctica: Insights from Fossil Record
  • Francesco d'Errico, Univ Bordeaux: When and how did humans became behaviourally modern?


  • Madelaine Böhme, Univ Tübingen: The late middle Miocene vertebrate fauna of Gratkorn - an exceptional fossil locality
  • Jeff Ollerton, Univ Northampton: The biodiversity of plant-pollinator interactions: an overview of research 1990-210
  • Katharina Foerster, Univ Tübingen: Understanding evolution: The power of long-term field data
  • Dieter Ebert, Univ Basel: Antagonistic coevolution
  • Eörs Szathmary, Collegium Budapest: The origin of the genetic code
  • Ran Nathan, Univ Jerusalem: An emerging movement ecology paradigm
  • Thomas Cavalier-Smith, Univ Oxford: The eukaryote tree: deep phylogeny and the evolution of protist body plans
  • Duncan Irschick, Univ Massachusetts Amherst: The evolution of animal performance: from microevolution to macroevolution


  • Bill Hansson, MPI Chemical Ecology Jena: Olfactory Evolution
  • Tad Kawecki, Univ Lausanne: Evolutionary biology of learning: insights from Drosophila
  • Mike Benton, Univ Bristol: New Methods of Studying Dinosaurian Radiation and Success
  • Russel Gray, Univ Auckland: The Pleasures and Perils of Darwinising Culture
  • Nicholas Conard, Univ Tübingen: A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwest Germany
  • Joan Roughgarden, Univ Stanford: Reproductive Social Behavior: Old and New Evolutionary Theories
  • Franjo Weissing, Univ Groningen: The Evolution of animal personality
  • Volker Loeschcke, Univ Arhus: Thermal adaptation and environmental stress: from selection experiments to gene expression studies and field releases


  • Hans Breeuwer, Univ Amsterdam: Evolutionary consequences of reproductive parasites in spider mites
  • Laurent Keller, Univ Lausanne: Behaviour, the role of interactions between genes and social environment