Optimal Movement Theory: The economy of decision-making in animal movement

Supervisor: Dr. Hannah Williams

We are seeking a doctoral student to join an exciting project quantifying the energetic value of social information in the multidimensional reality of movement decisions. The position aims to provide an empirical model to predict how individuals respond to multifaceted and unpredictable environments. The project is based at the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior, Konstanz University, Germany, in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Animal behavior, is fully funded for 3.5 years (TV_L 13 65%, start date as early as April 2023), and open to students of any nationality and discipline.


Research Topic:

Animals must move in search of the resources needed for life and movement is the outcome of a series of complex decisions as animals must consider a multitude of factors to integrate the various ecological landscapes and the certainty therein – including the food-resource landscape, the landscape of fear (avoidance of predators) and that of environmental energy (fluctuating media flows and physical features). Traditionally the effect of these landscapes on movement decisions has been considered in isolation of the others and each movement step as a discrete decision point. But separating these landscapes and not considering the future payoffs of a decision output somewhat oversimplifies how we understand and model movement and calls for unification. These landscapes act simultaneously on decision-making, and all include varying amounts of error in expectation. In addition, they change their form through time, and their absolute and relative values depend on the changing physiological needs (demographic differences, reproductive state, etc.) of the animal.

Project Details

This project will integrate landscapes according to their shared currency of energy into a single decision landscape, as each can be expressed in terms of energy use, gain or conservation and decisions should be evolutionarily selected to optimise the energy balance at all scales. Guided by the workings of Optimal Foraging Theory, the student will develop the Optimal Movement Theory and build a predictive model for movement decisions where the probability of moving to a specific location will be greatest where the net energy gain and future payoffs are high.

The project will go on to expand this decision landscape by the social dimension, thus integrating the effect of uncertainty on movement-decisions in dynamic landscapes. Considering the relevance of social information as a resource for decreased uncertainty, the project will quantify the energetic value of social information and explore the consequences for the emergence of moving aggregations.

The student will simulate the movement of soaring-flight, a model system for exploring the integration of different resource landscapes as soaring specialists are dependent on potential energy available in aerial updrafts as well as other resources, and show various degrees of cohesion in collective movements. Data will be simulated using a realistic algorithm for soaring-gliding flight and the movement-decision models will be tested with two real life soaring systems – Andean condors and competitive paragliding (data collected by the group).


Supervision and Research Community:

The student will join the new Move.inFormation group led by Dr. Hannah Williams integrated within the CASCB. They will also benefit from the joint supervision of Dr. Kamran Safi head of the Animal-Environment Interactions group (Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior) and collaboration with Falk Schreiber of the Life Science Informatics group (Konstanz University).

They 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.


A quantitative background (spatial analyses or mathematics) and an interest in combining traditional movement models (e.g., agent-based, step-selection, or continuous time models) with those from economics, for example. Prior experience with programming (e.g., in R, Python, MATLAB, etc.) and an enthusiasm for tackling challenging computational problems are essential.

Given the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the project, it is also critical that the student has strong interpersonal skills. Applicants should have a Masters degree, or equivalent, in any quantitative scientific discipline. The working language of the group is English, and German language skills are not a requirement.


Location: The project is based in Konstanz and mainly simulation based, but the student will be encouraged to join other members of the group for short fieldwork periods (a matter of weeks each year) in Argentina where data from Condors will be collected and/or in the French alps working with competitive paraglider pilots.


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 (hwilliams@ab.mpg.de).


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 development of a predictive algorithm continuing from this paper (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534721001865). A framework outline should also be presented as a figure (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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