Wolfgang M. Schleidt
Robert Hamerlingg. 1/22 
A-1150 Vienna 
 Austria
 

 

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Area of Interest
I grew up with great respect and love for all living things, and early on befriended not only any pet within reach but also individual plants I discovered, following them though the seasons and looking them again the next spring. Similarly, on my way to school, I looked for a particular horse who was usually standing with his cart in front of a bakery at that time and spoke to him and gave him a piece of dry bread or a sugar cube
I was also very much interested in mechanical toys like my train set, and took apart anything I was able to pry open, trying to look inside and to understand how it functioned, how its parts moved and its gears interacted. This mechanical curiosity extended equally to the bodies of animals as well as to my own. For example, while playing with our dog’s paw, I saw how its digits bent just like my fingers did, and when I found a dead bird, I tried to understand how his foot could stay closed around a branch while he was asleep.
Furthermore, I loved to draw and make things with my hands. So, at the age many little boys want to become truck drivers or fire chiefs, I wanted to become an artist or architect. As I grew older, my curiosity about animals became stronger. I tried to take care of the injured, so aspiring to a profession involving helping creatures came naturally. My mother’s suggestion that I become a physician was something worth striving for, and this goal helped me at times when school became unbearably boring.
Because a war disability disqualified me for medical school, I had to settle for the study of biology. I was greatly disappointed by the atmosphere in the zoology department, which was saturated with naphtaline and formaline and void of any living creatures. Thus, I found a “Biological Field Station” in the making, devoted to the life of animals, most attractive, and so became one of the first coworkers of the founding couple, Otto and Lilli Koenig. They were outstanding in their devotion to nature and live animals, following their idols, Oskar Heinroth and Konrad Lorenz. Heinroth had died at the end of the war and Lorenz was “missing in action” and presumed dead, so we tried to carry on their tradition: starting with patient observation and learning more by raising animals, becoming their foster parents and caring for them and viewing them as fellow creatures.
My academic interests grew out of old-fashioned and newfangled natural history, coming together in a discourse on the plain life of a humble vole, as topic for my dissertation, “Contributions to the biology and ethology of the bank vole” (Clethrionomys glareolus). Today it looks like a hodgepodge of investigations into the everyday life of a rodent in its natural environment, but at that time it was a unique attempt to explore the problem from a variety of positions: morphology, physiology, ecology and ethology. Two discoveries set the stage for my future research.
First, I had noticed my bank voles emitting peculiar high-pitched vocalizations while roaming around in the spacious terrarium on my desk. When “grown up” people, like the Koenigs or older friends, confessed their inability to hear the twittering, I concluded that the pitch of that sound must be in the upper range of hearing that is lost first as people get older (48*). I investigated the voles’ vocalizations systematically, established that their pitch was beyond the range of the recording technique of that time, and successfully built a converter that transposed the high frequency into the middle of our hearing range (this device is now known as a “bat detector”). The skills I acquired came in handy in a variety of behavioral observations, and so I became not only a pioneer of bioacoustics (52, 56, 58), but also expert in recording and analyzing a wide variety of behavior patterns(64b, 65, 72, 73b, 82a).
* Number refers to the last two digits of the year of publication, listed under “Selected Publications”
The second discovery of my dissertation was the amazing similarity and comparability of the behavior of newborn mammals. Following the lead of Heinroth, who had raised all kinds of birds from the egg, I was determined to raise mouse pups from birth. Although I invested a lot of ingenuity (e.g., trying to milk mice, rats and guinea pigs) and, literally, sleepless nights (feeding my babies), I did not succeed in raising mice from day one as I had hoped, but did get a good understanding of their neonatal behavioral patterns. Bank vole babies are rare, but babies of house mice and laboratory rats are much easier to come by, as are puppies and kittens. Soon a comparative study began, fueled by the increasing interest of my friend Heinz Prechtl. His being in medical school at that time allowed us to extend our studies to human subjects (50). For Prechtl, this project became the start of a splendid medical career as specialist in perinatal neural development, and for me it established a deep trust in the kinship of all beings through a heightened awareness of the fragile veneer that culture drapes around our animal body and mind (60, 66, 73a, 80, 87, 88b, 92, 94, 95, 97. 98a, 98b, 00, 01c).
My dissertation research was well on its way when, in the Spring of 1948, Konrad Lorenz returned from Russia and, along with Ludwig von Bertalanffy, became the focal point of “new biology” in Vienna. I soon became fascinated by his medical background and attitude, more so than by his being the man who talks to his animals. At that time I considered myself primarily a comparative sensory physiologist with a certain competence in ethology and in comparative morphology; this was my “official” field of study and specialty of my kind dissertation advisor, Professor Wilhelm Marinelli. But, as a biologist and a fatherly friend, Konrad Lorenz soon became my real mentor. He invited me to move with my mice to famous Altenberg, and soon I became part of his family.
When Lorenz was offered the chance to realize his old dream of heading his own research institute and asked me to join in this adventure, he became my formal teacher in the Zen of Animal Watching and Motor Car Maintenance. I absorbed much of his attitude toward nature in general. My key contributions came from my background in physiological research, which had taught me to enforce rigorous standards of reproducibility of results, and from my technical skills, honed in my own research in bioacoustics. I drew from my past training and skills to work toward a “quantitative ethology” For example, when the term “Fixed Action Patterns” became a contested synonym for instinctive behavior, I treated them as discrete patterns to be detected, classified, and recognized, applying algorithms that have become the core of “Artificial Intelligence”. (64, 65, 72, 73a, 74, 76, 78, 83, 85a, 85b).
To me, sensory physiology opened my mind not only to the world of other creatures but also to their minds, through studies of perception and cognition (80, 82a, 83, 84, 85b, 92). In critical reviews, I evaluated the concepts of “Innate Releasing Mechanism” and “Fixed Action Pattern” (61b, 62, 64a, 64b, 73a) and, by applying quantitative methods (58, 61a, 64c, 65, 72, 74, 78, 82a, 85b) derived from contemporary physiology, I gained the confidence to put theoretical concepts of ethology (61a, 74, 75, 80, 84, 85a) to the test. I identified an important facet of organismic communication that I named “tonic communication”, which deals with continuous effects of signals and questions the Markovian approach to the analysis of sequential interactions between communicants (73a). My lifelong affection for dogs has given me ample opportunity to make observations and form opinions. These have recently jelled into a hypothesis that dogs and humans are linked in a process of co-evolution; therefore, to view dogs as “domesticated wolves” does not do justice to their contribution to human culture (98b).
Reaching across academic boundaries has been a driving ambition throughout my life, e.g., making biology meet art (94, 00, 01c), engineering (66/67), and clinical medicine (60a, 87, 95), even archeology ( www.schleidt.org/rockart ) and film making (70a, b, c). Also, due to my closeness to Konrad Lorenz through his second half of his life, I feel responsible for helping to carry on his work and ideas (82b, 88a, 90, 01a, 01b, 02).