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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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).
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.
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).
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).
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).