Ethology: Wikis


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Ethology (from Greek: ἦθος, ethos, "character"; and -λογία, -logia) is the scientific study of animal behavior, and a sub-topic of zoology.

Although many naturalists have studied aspects of animal behavior throughout history, the modern discipline of ethology is generally considered to have begun during the 1930s with the work of Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and Austrian biologists Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch, joint winners of the 1973 Nobel Prize in medicine.[1] Ethology is a combination of laboratory and field science, with a strong relation to certain other disciplines — e.g., neuroanatomy, ecology, evolution. Ethologists are typically interested in a behavioral process rather than in a particular animal group and often study one type of behavior (e.g. aggression) in a number of unrelated animals.

The desire to understand animals has made ethology a rapidly growing topic, and since the turn of the 21st century, many prior understandings related to diverse fields such as animal communication, personal symbolic name use, animal emotions, animal culture, learning, and even sexual conduct long thought to be well understood, have been modified, as have new fields such as neuroethology.



The term "ethology" is derived from the Greek word "èthos" (ήθος), meaning "character". Other words derived from the Greek word "ethos" include "ethics" and "ethical". The term was first popularized in English by the American myrmecologist William Morton Wheeler in 1902. (An earlier, slightly different sense of the term was proposed by John Stuart Mill in his 1843 System of Logic. He recommended the development of a new science, "ethology," the purpose of which would be explanation of individual and national differences in character, on the basis of associationistic psychology. This use of the word was never adopted.)

Differences and similarities with comparative psychology

Comparative psychology also studies animal behaviour, but, as opposed to ethology, is construed as a sub-topic of psychology rather than as one of biology. Historically, where comparative psychology researches animal behaviour in the context of what is known about human psychology, ethology researches animal behaviour in the context of what is known about animal anatomy, physiology, neurobiology, and phylogenetic history. This distinction is not representative of the current state of the field. Furthermore, early comparative psychologists concentrated on the study of learning and tended to research behaviour in artificial situations, whereas early ethologists concentrated on behaviour in natural situations, tending to describe it as instinctive. The two approaches are complementary rather than competitive, but they do result in different perspectives and, sometimes, in conflicts of opinion about matters of substance. In addition, for most of the twentieth century, comparative psychology developed most strongly in North America, while ethology was stronger in Europe. A practical difference is that early comparative psychologists concentrated on gaining extensive knowledge of the behaviour of very few species, while ethologists were more interested in gaining knowledge of behaviour in a wide range of species in order to be able to make principled comparisons across taxonomic groups. Ethologists have made much more use of a truly comparative method than comparative psychologists have. Despite the historical divergence, most ethologists (as opposed to behavioural ecologists), at least in North America, teach in psychology departments. It is a strong belief among scientists that the mechanisms on which behavioural processes are based are the same that cause the evolution of the living species: there is therefore a strong association between these two fields.

Scala Naturae and Lamarck's theories

Charles Darwin (1809–1882)

Until the 18th century, the most common theory among scientists was still the Scala Naturae proposed by Aristotle: according to this theory, living beings were classified on an ideal pyramid in which the simplest animals were represented by the lower levels, and, with complexity increasing progressively to the top, which was represented by human beings. There was also a group of 'biologists' who refuted the Aristotelian theory for a more anthropocentric one, according to which all living beings were created by God to serve mankind, and would behave accordingly. A well-radicated opinion in the common sense of the time in the Western world was that animal species were eternal and immutable, created with a specific purpose, as this seemed the only possible explanation for the incredible variety of the living beings and their surprising adaptation to their habitat.

The first biologist elaborating a complex theory of evolution was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). His theory substantially comprised two statements: the first is that animal organs and behaviour can change according to the way they are being used, and second that those characteristics are capable of being transmitted from one generation to the next (well-known is the example of the giraffe whose neck becomes longer while trying to reach the upper leaves of a tree). The second statement is that each and every living organism, human beings included, tends to reach a greater level of perfection. At the time of his journey for the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin was well aware of Lamarck's theories and was influenced by them.

Theory of evolution by natural selection and the beginnings of ethology

Because ethology is considered a topic of biology, ethologists have been concerned particularly with the evolution of behaviour and the understanding of behaviour in terms of the theory of natural selection. In one sense, the first modern ethologist was Charles Darwin, whose book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, influenced many ethologists. He pursued his interest in behaviour by encouraging his protégé George Romanes, who investigated animal learning and intelligence using an anthropomorphic method, anecdotal cognitivism, that did not gain scientific support.

Other early ethologists, such as Oskar Heinroth and Julian Huxley, instead concentrated on behaviours that can be called instinctive, or natural, in that they occur in all members of a species under specified circumstances. Their beginning for studying the behaviour of a new species was to construct an ethogram (a description of the main types of natural behaviour with their frequencies of occurrence). This provided an objective, cumulative base of data about behaviour, which subsequent researchers could check and supplement.

Fixed action patterns and animal communication

An important development, associated with the name of Konrad Lorenz though probably due more to his teacher, Oskar Heinroth, was the identification of fixed action patterns (FAPs). Lorenz popularized FAPs as instinctive responses that would occur reliably in the presence of identifiable stimuli (called sign stimuli or releasing stimuli). These FAPs could then be compared across species, and the similarities and differences between behaviour could be easily compared with the similarities and differences in morphology. An important and much quoted study of the Anatidae (ducks and geese) by Heinroth used this technique. Ethologists noted that the stimuli that released FAPs were commonly features of the appearance or behaviour of other members of their own species, and they were able to prove how important forms of animal communication could be mediated by a few simple FAPs. The most sophisticated investigation of this kind was the study by Karl von Frisch of the so-called "dance language" related to bee communication. Lorenz developed an interesting theory of the evolution of animal communication based on his observations of the nature of fixed action patterns and the circumstances in which animals emit them.


Kelp Gull chicks peck at red spot on mother's beak to stimulate regurgitating reflex.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines instinct as a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason. For ethologists, instinct means a series of predictable behaviors for fixed action patterns. Such schemes are only acted when a precise stimulating signal is present. When such signals act as communication among members of the same species, they are known as releasers. Notable examples of releasers are, in many bird species, the beak movements by the newborns, which stimulates the mother's regurgitating process to feed her offspring. Another well known case is the classic experiments by Tinbergen and Lorenz on the Graylag Goose. Like similar waterfowl, it will roll a displaced egg near its nest back to the others with its beak. The sight of the displaced egg triggers this mechanism. If the egg is taken away, the animal continues with the behaviour, pulling its head back as if an imaginary egg is still being maneuvered by the underside of its beak.[2] However, it will also attempt to move other egg shaped objects, such as a golf ball, door knob, or even an egg too large to have possibly been laid by the goose itself (a supernormal stimulus).[3] As made obvious by this last example, however, a behaviour only made of fixed action patterns would be particularly rigid and inefficient, reducing the probabilities of survival and reproduction. The learning process has therefore great importance, as the ability to change the individual's responses based on its experience. It can be said that the more the brain is complex and the life of the individual long, the more its behaviour will be "intelligent" (in the sense of guided by experience rather than stereotyped FAPs).


Learning occurs in many ways, one of the most elementary being habituation. This process consists in ignoring persistent or useless stimuli. An example of learning by habituation is the one observed in squirrels: when one of them feels threatened, the others hear its signal and go to the nearest refuge. However, if the signal comes from an individual who has caused many false alarms, its signal will be ignored.

Another common way of learning is by association, where a stimuli is, based on the experience, linked to another one which may not have anything to do with the first one. The first studies of associative learning were made by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. An example of associative behaviour is observed when a common goldfish goes close to the water surface whenever a human is going to feed it, or the excitement of a dog whenever it sees a collar as a prelude for a walk. The associative learning process is related to the necessity of developing discriminatory capacities, that is, the faculty of making meaningful choices. Being able to discriminate the members of your own species is of fundamental importance for reproductive success. Such discrimination can be based on a number of factors in many species including birds, however, this important type of learning only takes place in a very limited period of time. This kind of learning is called imprinting.


Example of imprinting in a moose

A second important finding of Lorenz concerned the early learning of young nidifugous birds, a process he called imprinting. Lorenz observed that the young of birds such as geese and chickens followed their mothers spontaneously from almost the first day after they were hatched, and he discovered that this response could be imitated by an arbitrary stimulus if the eggs were incubated artificially and the stimulus was presented during a critical period (a less temporally constrained period is called a sensitive period) that continued for a few days after hatching.


Finally, imitation is often an important type of learning. A well-documented example of imitative learning is that of macaques in Hachijojima island, Japan. These primates used to live in the inland forest until the 1960s, when a group of researchers started giving them some potatoes on the beach: soon they started venturing onto the beach, picking the potatoes from the sand, and cleaning and eating them. About one year later, an individual was observed bringing a potato to the sea, putting it into the water with one hand, and cleaning it with the other. Her behaviour was soon imitated by the individuals living in contact with her; when they gave birth, they taught this practice to their young.[4]

The National Institutes of Health recently reported that capuchin monkeys preferred the company of researchers who imitated them to that of researchers who did not imitate them. The monkeys not only spent more time with their imitators, but also preferred to engage in a simple task with them even when provided with the option of performing the same task with a non-imitator.[5]

Mating and the fight for supremacy

Individual reproduction is the most important phase in the proliferation of individuals or genes within a species: for this reason, we can often observe complex mating rituals, which can be very complex even if they are often regarded as fixed action patterns (FAPs). The Stickleback's complex mating ritual was studied by Niko Tinbergen and is regarded as a notable example of a FAP. Often in social life, animals fight for the right of reproducing themselves as well as social supremacy.

A common example of fight for social and sexual supremacy is the so-called pecking order among poultry. A pecking order is established every time a group of poultry co-lives for a certain amount of time. In each of these groups, a chicken is dominating among the others and can peck before anyone else without being pecked. A second chicken can peck all the others but the first, and so on. The chicken in the higher levels can be easily distinguished for their well-cured aspect, as opposed to the ones in the lower levels. During the period in which the pecking order is establishing, frequent and violent fights can happen, but once it is established it is only broken when other individuals are entering the group, in which case the pecking order has to be established from scratch.

Living in groups

Several animal species, including humans, tend to live in groups. Group size is a major aspect of their social environment. Social life is probably a complex and effective survival strategy. It may be regarded as a sort of symbiosis among individuals of the same species: a society is composed of a group of individuals belonging to the same species living within well-defined rules on food management, role assignments and reciprocal dependence.

The situation is actually much more complex than it seems. When biologists interested in evolution theory first started examining social behaviour, some apparently unanswerable questions occurred. How could, for instance, the birth of sterile castes, like in bees, be explained through an evolving mechanism which emphasizes the reproductive success of as many individuals as possible? Why, among animals living in small groups like squirrels, would an individual risk its own life to save the rest of the group? These behaviours may be examples of altruism. Of course, not all behaviours are altruistic, as indicated by the table below. Notably, revengeful behaviour was at one point claimed to have been observed exclusively in Homo sapiens. However other species have been reported to be vengeful, including a reports of vengeful camels[6] and vengeful chimpanzees.[7]

Classification of social behaviours
Type of behaviour Effect on the donor Effect on the receiver
Egoistic Increases fitness Decreases fitness
Cooperative Increases fitness Increases fitness
Altruistic Decreases fitness Increases fitness
Revengeful Decreases fitness Decreases fitness

The existence of egoism through natural selection doesn't pose any question to evolution theory and is, on the contrary, fully predicted by it, as well as for the cooperative behaviour. It is more difficult to understand the mechanism through which the altruistic behaviour initially developed.

Tinbergen's four questions for ethologists

Lorenz's collaborator, Niko Tinbergen, argued that ethology always needed to include four kinds of explanation in any instance of behaviour:

  • Function — How does the behaviour affect the animal's chances of survival and reproduction? Why does the animal respond that way instead of some other way?
  • Causation — What are the stimuli that elicit the response, and how has it been modified by recent learning?
  • Development — How does the behaviour change with age, and what early experiences are necessary for the behaviour to be displayed?
  • Evolutionary history — How does the behaviour compare with similar behaviour in related species, and how might it have begun through the process of phylogeny?

These explanations are complementary rather than mutually exclusive - all instances of behaviour require an explanation at each of these four levels. For example, the function of eating is to acquire nutrients (which ultimately aids survival and reproduction), but the immediate cause of eating is hunger (causation). Hunger and eating are evolutionarily ancient and are found in many species (evolutionary history), and develop early within an organism's lifespan (development). It is easy to confuse such questions - for example to argue that people eat because they're hungry and not to acquire nutrients - without realizing that the reason people experience hunger (causation) is because it causes them to acquire nutrients (function).[8]

Growth of the Field

By the work of Lorenz and Tinbergen, ethology developed strongly in continental Europe during the years prior to World War II. After the war, Tinbergen moved to the University of Oxford, and ethology became stronger in the UK, with the additional influence of William Thorpe, Robert Hinde, and Patrick Bateson at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour of the University of Cambridge, located in the village of Madingley. In this period, too, ethology began to develop strongly in North America.

Lorenz, Tinbergen, and von Frisch were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1973 for their work of developing ethology.

Ethology is now a well recognised scientific discipline, and has a number of journals covering developments in the subject, such as the Ethology Journal. In 1972, the International Society for Human Ethology was founded to promote exchange of knowledge and opinions concerning human behavior gained by applying ethological principles and methods and published in their journal, The Human Ethology Bulletin. During 2008, in a paper published in the journal Behaviour, ethologist Peter Verbeek introduced the term "Peace Ethology" as a sub-discipline of Human Ethology that is concerned with issues of human conflict, conflict resolution, reconciliation, war, peacemaking, and peacekeeping behavior [9].

Social ethology and recent developments

During 1970, the English ethologist John H. Crook published an important paper in which he distinguished comparative ethology from social ethology, and argued that much of the ethology that had existed so far was really comparative ethology—examining animals as individuals—whereas in the future ethologists would need to concentrate on the behaviour of social groups of animals and the social structure within them.

Also in 1970, Robert Ardrey's book The Social Contract: A Personal Inquiry into the Evolutionary Sources of Order and Disorder was published. The book and study investigated animal behaviour and then compared human behaviour as a similar phenomenon.

Indeed, E. O. Wilson's book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis appeared in 1975, and since that time the study of behaviour has been much more concerned with social aspects. It has also been driven by the stronger, but more sophisticated, Darwinism associated with Wilson, Robert Trivers and William Hamilton. The related development of behavioural ecology has also helped transform ethology. Furthermore, a substantial rapprochement with comparative psychology has occurred, so the modern scientific study of behaviour offers a more or less seamless spectrum of approaches – from animal cognition to more traditional comparative psychology, ethology, sociobiology and behavioural ecology. Sociobiology has more recently developed into evolutionary psychology.


  • There are often mismatches between human senses and those of the organisms they are observing. To compensate, ethologists use epistemology to predict and avoid misinterpretation of data.
  • "Super-real object" is an object that causes an abnormally strong response in an animal. An example of this is the design of dummies that mimic and over-stress the key characteristics of individuals in certain species causing animals to direct behaviour to the super-real object and ignore the real object. A super-real object may cause pathologies and we can see many examples in humans (super-sweet food, super-big female traits, super-relaxing drugs, etc.). See the book, Foundations of Ethology by Konrad Lorenz.
  • Deleuze draws upon the notions of ethology in his book "Spinoza: Practical Philosophy" to develop his ontology, most specifically in reference to the plane of immanence.

List of ethologists

People who have made notable contributions to ethology (many are comparative psychologists):

See also


  1. ^ Nobel Prize page for 1973 Medicine Award to Tinbergen, Lorenz, and von Frisch for contributions in ethology
  2. ^ Tinbergen, Niko 1953 The Herring Gull's World - London, Collins
  3. ^ Tinbergen, N. (1951) The Study of Instinct. Oxford University Press, New York.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ The Ape and the Sushi Master
  7. ^ Beyond Revenge
  8. ^ Barrett et al. (2002) Human Evolutionary Psychology. Princeton University Press.
  9. ^ Verbeek, Peter. (2008) "Peace Ethology." Behaviour 145, 1497-1524

Further reading

External links

Diagrams on Tinbergen's four questions


Up to date as of January 23, 2010
(Redirected to Animal Behavior article)

From Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection

Animal Behavior

A guide to the hows and whys of animals interacting with each other and with the world around them.

A Free Online Textbook

Notes to Contributors
Textbook cover

This textbook explores the mechanisms and evolution of animal behavior, including neural, hormonal, and genetic substrates of behavior; foraging; anti-predator defenses; mating systems and sexual selection; social behavior; communication; parental care; kin selection and recognition; and territoriality. Associated laboratory exercises will provide hands-on experience for many of these concepts.



Chapter 1. History, Aims and Approaches

Chapter 2. Development, Learning and Genetics

Chapter 3. Proximate Mechanisms of Behavior

Chapter 4. Functional Significance of Behavior

Chapter 5. Phylogeny, and Behavior

Chapter 6. Behavior Case Studies

  • Communication Systems
  • Spatial Distributions
  • other

Chapter 7. Comparative Human Behavior

original modules that are now included in the text

these modules contain the original histories for the material that has been merged into different sections of the book

Simple English

Ethology is the science of how animals usually act or behave. This includes how animals act with each other, how they communicate, and how they feel emotions.

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