Social sampling of airflows in competitive soaring flight

Supervisor: Dr. Hannah Williams

I am seeking a doctoral student to join an exciting new project that takes a unique approach to investigate the energetic value of social information in movement. The student will be based at the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior, Konstanz University, Germany. The project will work with various movement and eye-tracking data collected in flight in the unique system of competitive paraglider racing. They will apply principles of aeronautics, collective behaviour and animal ecology to better understand the mechanism by which movement efficiency may be influenced by the collective. The project is highly interdisciplinary and supported by international collaborations with sports teams and researchers from within the CASCB and at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior. The position is fully funded for 3.5 years (TV_L 13 65%, start date as early as Feb 2023) and open to students of any nationality and disciplinary background.


Research Topic:

How do the heaviest of birds fly seemingly effortlessly in what is a dynamic soup of invisible airflows? Flight in particular, is extremely costly, and so many species have evolved morphological adaptations to exploit lift available in airflows (updrafts). It would make sense therefore, that those most dependant on this resource to move (i.e., obligate soaring species), would also evolve behavioural strategies to up-the-odds of efficient movement. 

It has been hypothesised that by moving collectively, animals can observe the movement of others to gain up-to-date information on the availability of environmental-energy to improve probabilistic decision-making for cheap movement. To test this hypothesis we must understand how an animal may percieve energy and build an informed expectation of the environment on which to base their movement-decisions on.

Using soaring flight and the aerial environment of ephemeral updrafts as the model system, this project will look through the eyes of the obligate soaring bird by doing so with competitive paraglider pilots to quantify the energetic value of social information for efficient movement in dynamic landsandscapes. Paraglider pilots are restricted to the same motion capacity and environmental-energy landscape as obligate soaring species, often occupying the same space, but provide a much more tangible system to explore the social sampling of energy. If we can quantify the energetic value of social information in dynamic environments, we can better understand the selective pressures to move collectively and even exploit the concept to improve the efficiency of our aerial vehicles/sports.


Project Details:

Humans have created a system in the sport of paragliding where a similar pressure for flight efficiency as in animal flight has been created. In paragliding competitions, pilots set off from a designated start point and must race to a shared goal by moving between updraft hotspots, similar to the foraging behaviour of soaring birds. The student will work with the British Paragliding Racing Academy (BPRA) and use a combination of bio-logging sensors (eye-tracking, head- and body-mounted inertial measurement units and GPS) to record what social cues competitors are paying attention that may reveal the energetics of the system to others.

The student also has the opportunity to develop playback experiments to establish the value of social cues over personal information, analogous to the well-established playback experiments for the study of auditory signaling. We can manipulate the reliability (truthfulness) of social information by developing an immersive virtual reality experiment (a technique being developed at the Centre for Visual Computing of Collectives (VCC) within the University of Konstanz).

Supervision and Research Community: The student will join the new Move.inFormation research group led by Dr. Hannah Williams and integrated within CASCB. This is primarily an animal ecology research group, but the paraglider system is providing the insight into information perception in free movement. They will work closely with an international team of collaborators including Dr. Kamran Safi from the Animal-Environment Interactions group (Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Germany), Prof. Falk Schreiber of Life Science Informatics and Immersive Analytics (Konstanz University, Germany), and BPRA pilots Malin Lobb  (Annecy, France) and Dr. Matthew Wilkes of the Extreme Environments lab (University of Portsmouth, UK). The student will also participate in the broader “Optimal Movement Theory” project, a long-term project that aims to develop a predictive model for efficient movement strategies in dynamic environments which includes theoretical works and the long-term tracking of a population of Andean Condors (Argentina).

The student will be based at the CASCB and will join the International Max Planck Research School for Quantitative Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution (IMPRS-QBEE), a joint doctoral program between the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Konstanz, which together form a thriving research community representing a global hotspot for collective behavior and movement research.


The student should have a quantitative background and an interest in the intersection between physics and biology. The data collected will include 3D location, aeronautical measures of fine scale locomotion at sub-second frequencies, and eye-tracking data, thus an enthusiasm for tackling challenging computational problems is essential and prior experience with programming (e.g., in R, Python, MATLAB, etc.) would be beneficial.

It is critical that the student have strong interpersonal skills and be enthusiastic about working with sports teams and biologists in the field and in the interpretation of their results.

Applicants should have a Masters degree or equivalent in any scientific discipline including biology, physics, mathematics, or engineering. The working language of the group is English, and German language skills are not a requirement.


Location: The student will be based in Konstanz, Germany. Much of the data will be collected by the student within Europe and predominately in the French Alps region. There is also the chance to join other members of the group during fieldwork in Argentina where data from Condors will be collected.


Application Process: Applicants should apply via the IMPRS application system (due 16 December 2022) and are also required to include a research statement (see below for details). For further information regarding the position, please contact Hannah Williams (


Research Statement Instructions: Applicants should include a 2-page (max.) research statement that addresses the following points:


  1. Describe your main research interests, how they developed, and how they relate to the proposed research project. (1-page max.)
  2. Describe how you may approach the research questions of focus using the data described above. A mock figure of expected results is encouraged (1-page max.).

The University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Society are equal opportunity employers that are committed to providing employment opportunities to all qualified applicants without regard to race, color, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, or disability. They seek to increase the number of women in those areas where they are underrepresented and therefore explicitly encourage women to apply (Equal opportunity). Persons with disabilities are explicitly encouraged to apply. They will be given preference if appropriately qualified (contact +49 7531 88 4016).

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