What is Animal Behavior?

The study of animal behavior is the scientific study of everything that animals do, whether the animals are single-celled organisms, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, humans, or other mammals. It involves the investigation of the relationship of animals to their physical environment as well as to other organisms, and includes topics such as how animals find and defend resources, avoid predators, choose mates and reproduce, and care for their young.

People who study animal behavior are typically trying to answer one or more of the following four kinds of questions about behavior (often referred to as “Tinbergen’s four questions,” after the animal behaviorist Niko Tinbergen who first described them):

  • What is the cause of the behavior?
  • What mechanism is underlying it?
  • What “triggered” it just now?
  • How did the behavior develop within the individual’s lifetime?
  • What function or functions does the behavior serve?
  • How did the behavior evolve over time?

Answers to questions about the causes of behavior include both the external stimuli that affect behavior, and the internal hormonal and neural mechanisms that control behavior. Questions about the development of behavior focus on the ways in which behavior changes over the lifetime of the animal, and how these changes are affected by both genes and experience. Questions about the functions of behavior focus on both the behavior’s immediate effect on the animal and on the behavior’s adaptive value in helping the animal to survive or reproduce successfully in a particular environment. Finally, questions about the evolution of behavior focus on the origins of behavior patterns and how these change over generations.