Dallas Zoological Society Partnership : Zoo Science

Studying Animal Behavior

Topic Overview
Quick Facts
Ethology is the study of behavior, and ethologists can make ethograms to record the behavior of a specific animal.
According to Dr. Mark Briffa and Professor Bob Elwood, hermit crabs show interesting behaviors when changing from one shell to another; they will put their claws into a new shell to try to guage the size and they will also pull sea anemones that have attatched themselves to the crab’s old “home” (shell) off and attatch them to the new shell.
Domestic dogs have had a relationship with people for thousands of years.
Animals have behaviors that help them meet basic needs such as escaping predators, finding food and reproducing.
The killdeer bird has an interesting technique for luring predators away from her nest.
Recent research by National Zoo scientists in Africa has shown that elephants form different kinds of social groups, and individual elephants may move back and forth between groups.
Emporer penguins each have an individual call that they can use to find their young.
It is possible for wild wolves and domestic dogs to produce offspring, but this usually does not happen unless humans arrange the conditions.
Mother animals are inspired to care for their babies because of the way their babies’ bodies are designed; we think of this as being “cute”.
Scientists at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park are using computers to teach orangutans a simple language.
Begin the Lesson
Ask the students to list examples in their of movements they have completed, things they have said, made or written during the week. Have the students compare their answers with a partner. Next, ask the students to look up the definition of the word “behavior” in the dictionary. Tell the students to rephrase the dictionary definition with a simpler one. Possible answers might include:
Behavior is a response to something in your environment.
Behavior is an action you take to do something.
Behavior helps you accomplish things you need to do.
Whole Class Introduction to the Lesson
You will need at least one computer with Internet connectivity and a projection device, a classroom with more than one computer, or access to a computer lab. This introduction will take approximately 10 minutes to complete.
Introduce your students to the concept of animal behavior by visiting:
If you are in a classroom with only one presentation station, ask the students to take turns reading the different sections on the Web site, starting with “Definition of Behavior.” There are many sections on this sight, so you might want to pick just a few, depending on the students’ previous learning. Ask the students how many have ever seen an animal show like the ones at Sea World.
Sample Questions
How do the trainers get the killer whales and other animals to perform in the show? They use whistles, or hand signals, and offer them rewards.
How do you think these actions are different from those performed in the wild? In the wild, they don’t have all the equipment that they do in the show, like hoops to jump through, but some of the same actions might happen in the wild. For example, dolphins and killer whales jumping out of the water.
As part of the introduction, you may want to review some of the glossary terms in advance of students going online. At this point you can launch the WebLesson as whole-class activity using a projection device, or you can assign students to work individually or in teams in a computer lab.
WebLesson Sites
Ethology is the study of behavior. We can make ethograms to show how animals behave. It is easy to think of some simple examples for humans. Wrestling with your little brother, eating lunch, doing homework, and playing football can all be considered behaviors. If you have pets, you have probably noticed they also have certain habits at certain times of the day. Behaviors allow animals to satisfy hunger, escape other animals, and have relationships with others of their own species. Mating behaviors allow for reproduction. Scientists have many different methods for studying behavior, some of which are general while others are specialized for certain animals. In this lesson, you will learn about what different behaviors can help animals do and how scientists study those behaviors. The knowledge they gain can keep species in the wild from disappearing.
You are a member of a special science exploration team, which will study a forest that has been seen by few humans. While traveling, you have been marooned on a remote island. Unfortunately, you cannot locate your team and you begin to tour the island and evaluate your situation. Just beyond a grove of palm trees, you notice some animals you have never seen before. They appear to be a group that can communicate with each other by using jumps, gestures and signs with their front limbs, but you cannot immediately figure out their system. You decide that it would be best to find a quiet spot to hide and observe these Strange Island Animals, or S.I.A.’s for a while.
Lesson Pages
Animal Behaviour Lab Dr. Chris Evans
Rich Media
BBC - Nature - Chimpanzee
Rich Media
International Wolf Center-Learn-Communication
Pandas Reproduction: Video: Animal Planet
Rich Media
Nature-Baby Tales-PBS
Rich Media
Symposium - New technologies for monitoring biodiversity
Rich Media
Conclusion & Project
It seems as if there are as many animal behaviors as there are animals. Some behaviors are carried out because animals need to meet their basic needs. Examples of this would be keeping fur clean, or flying south to stay warm, or a male fish carrying eggs in his mouth so they will be safe until they hatch so the species will survive. Communication is also very important to some species, like wolves, chimpanzees, and humans. For some animals, communication starts very early with babies giving their mothers wide-eyed looks or sad faces. These behaviors can help mothers take good care of their babies so that they will survive. If a member of a wolf pack or chimpanzee family sends the wrong signals, they could miss a meal or an opportunity to mate. New technology can help scientists find out more about how groups of animals interact with each other. If orangutans can learn to speak by using a computer, we may actually be able to find out if other species are able to have thoughts just like humans. The more we learn about animal behavior the better we can help different animal species survive.
Now that you have learned about some animal behaviors and their possible meanings, it is time for you to try to navigate your temporary island home. Use your imagination and the examples of animal behavior you have seen in the lesson to write a sample ethogram for the Strange Island Animals. The ethogram should be written from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Begin with an introductory paragraph that describes the island and the creatures. Ask yourself questions like-“How big are their heads? “or “How many eyes, ears, arms, and legs do they have? “ Next, list the time, and underneath the time, write a sample of what you might observe the S.I.A’s doing. Think about different types of animal behaviors and why the animals would need to perform certain behaviors.
accessible - easy to reach or understand
acclaimed - praised
alliance - friendship
allure - wanting to be closer to something
astounded - surprised
carcass - dead body
elicit - produce
enlisting - asking for help
evolution - change in species over time
exhibit - show
facilitate - to make progress
harmoniously - peacefully
insulator - material that can hold heat
intentions - action that you take on purpose
interior - inside
intricate - complex or made of many layers
juvenile - young
livebearing - mother gives birth to already formed babies instead of laying eggs
malathion - spray that kills insects
mammalian - having to do with mammals
oscillogram - picture of an electrical wave
physiological - having to do with the chemical reactions in the body
regurgitation - bringing food back up from the stomach
repertoire - set of skills or normal actions
shimmying - shaking
shoal - group