animal behaviour

 Encyclopædia Britannica Article

animal behaviour

the concept, broadly considered, referring to everything animals do, including movement and other activities and underlying mental processes. Human fascination with animal behaviour probably extends back millions of years, perhaps even to times before the ancestors of the species became human in the modern sense. Initially, animals were probably observed for practical reasons because early human survival depended on knowledge of animal behaviour. Whether hunting wild game, keeping domesticated animals, or escaping an attacking predator, success required intimate knowledge of an animal's habits. Even today, information about animal behaviour is of considerable importance. For example, in Britain, studies on the social organization and the ranging patterns of badgers (Meles meles) have helped reduce the spread of tuberculosis among cattle, and studies of sociality in foxes (Vulpes vulpes) assist in the development of models that predict how quickly rabies would spread should it ever cross the English Channel. Likewise in Sweden, where collisions involving moose (Alces alces) are among the most common traffic accidents in rural areas, research on moose behaviour has yielded ways of keeping them off roads and verges. In addition, investigations of the foraging of insect pollinators, such as honeybees, have led to impressive increases in agricultural crop yields throughout the world.

Even if there were no practical benefits to be gained from learning about animal behaviour, the subject would still merit exploration. Humans (Homo sapiens) are animals themselves, and most humans are deeply interested in the lives and minds of their fellow humans, their pets, and other creatures. British ethologist Jane Goodall and American field biologist George Schaller, as well as British broadcaster David Attenborough and Australian wildlife conservationist Steve Irwin, have brought the wonders of animal behaviour to the attention and appreciation of the general public. Books, television programs, and movies on the subject of animal behaviour abound.

History and basic concepts

Darwin's influence

The origins of the scientific study of animal behaviour lie in the works of various European thinkers of the 17th to 19th centuries, such as British naturalists John Ray and Charles Darwin and French naturalist Charles LeRoy. These individuals appreciated the complexity and apparent purposefulness of the actions of animals, and they knew that understanding behaviour demands long-term observations of animals in their natural settings. At first, the principal attraction of natural history studies was to confirm the ingenuity of God. The publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 changed this attitude. In his chapter on instinct, Darwin was concerned with whether behavioral traits, like anatomical ones, can evolve as a result of natural selection. Since then, biologists have recognized that the behaviours of animals, like their anatomical structures, are adaptations that exist because they have, over evolutionary time (that is, throughout the formation of new species and the evolution of their special characteristics), helped their bearers to survive and reproduce.

Furthermore, humans have long appreciated how beautifully and intricately the behaviours of animals are adapted to their surroundings. For example, young birds that possess camouflaged colour patterns for protection against predators will freeze when the parent spots a predator and calls the alarm. Darwin's achievement was to explain how such wondrously adapted creatures could arise from a process other than special creation. He showed that adaptation is an inexorable result of four basic characteristics of living organisms:

  1. There is variation among individuals of the same species. Even closely related individuals, such as parent and offspring or sibling and sibling, differ considerably. Familiar human examples include differences in facial features, hair and eye colour, height, and weight.
  2. Many of these variations are inheritable—that is, offspring resemble their parents in many traits as a result of the genes they share.
  3. There are differences in numbers of surviving offspring among parents in every species. For example, one female snapping turtle (family Chelydridae) may lay 24 eggs; however, only 5 may survive to adulthood. In contrast, another female may lay only 18 eggs, with 1 of her offspring surviving to adulthood.
  4. The individuals that are best equipped to survive and reproduce perpetuate the highest frequency of genes to descendant populations. This is the principle known colloquially as “survival of the fittest,” where fitness denotes an individual's overall ability to pass copies of his genes on to successive generations. For example, a woman who rears six healthy offspring has greater fitness than one who rears just two.

An inevitable consequence of variation, inheritance, and differential reproduction is that, over time, the frequency of traits that render individuals better able to survive and reproduce in their present environment increases. As a result, descendant generations in a population resemble most closely the members of ancestral populations that were able to reproduce most effectively. This is the process of natural selection.

Ecological and ethological approaches to the study of behaviour

The natural history approach of Darwin and his predecessors gradually evolved into the twin sciences of animal ecology, the study of the interactions between an animal and its environment, and ethology, the biological study of animal behaviour. The roots of ethology can be traced to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when scientists from several countries began exploring the behaviours of selected vertebrate species: dogs by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov; rodents by American psychologists John B. Watson, Edward Tolman, and Karl Lashley; birds by American psychologist B.F. Skinner; and primates by German American psychologist Wolfgang Köhler and American psychologist Robert Yerkes. The studies were carried out in laboratories, in the case of dogs, rodents and pigeons, or in artificial colonies and laboratories, in the case of primates. These studies were oriented toward psychological and physiological questions rather than ecological or evolutionary ones.

It was not until the 1930s that field naturalists—such as English biologist Julian Huxley, Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, and Dutch-born British zoologist and ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen studying birds and Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch and American entomologist William Morton Wheeler examining insects—gained prominence and returned to broadly biological studies of animal behaviour. These individuals, the founders of ethology, had direct experience with the richness of the behavioral repertoires of animals living in their natural surroundings. Their “return to nature” approach was, to a large extent, a reaction against the tendency prevalent among psychologists to study just a few behavioral phenomena observed in a handful of species that were kept in impoverished laboratory environments.

The goal of the psychologists was to formulate behavioral hypotheses that claimed to have general applications (e.g., about learning as a single, all-purpose phenomenon). Later they would proceed using a deductive approach by testing their hypotheses through experimentation on captive animals. In contrast, the ethologists advocated an inductive approach, one that begins with observing and describing what animals do and then proceeds to address a general question: Why do these animals behave as they do? By this they meant “How do the specific behaviours of these animals lead to differential reproduction?” Since its birth in the 1930s, the ethological approach—which stresses the direct observation of a broad array of animal species in nature, embraces the vast variety of behaviours found in the animal kingdom, and commits to investigating behaviour from a broad biological perspective—has proved highly effective.

One of Tinbergen's most important contributions to the study of animal behaviour was to stress that ethology is like any other branch of biology, in that a comprehensive study of any behaviour must address four categories of questions, which today are called “levels of analysis,” including causation, ontogeny, function, and evolutionary history. Although each of these four approaches requires a different kind of scientific investigation, all contribute to solving the enduring puzzle of how and why animals, including humans, behave as they do. A familiar example of animal behaviour—a dog wagging its tail—serves to illustrate the levels of analysis framework. When a dog senses the approach of a companion (dog or human), it stands still, fixates on the approaching individual, raises its tail, and begins swishing it from side to side. Why does this dog wag its tail? To answer this general question, four specific questions must be addressed.

With respect to causation, the question becomes: What makes the behaviour happen? To answer this question, it becomes important to identify the physiological and cognitive mechanisms that underlie the tail-wagging behaviour. For example, the way the dog's hormonal system adjusts its responsiveness to stimuli, how the dog's nervous system transmits signals from its brain to its tail, and how the dog's skeletal-muscular system generates tail movements need to be understood. Causation can also be addressed from the perspective of cognitive processes (that is, knowing how the dog processes information when greeting a companion with tail wagging). This perspective includes determining how the dog senses the approach of another individual, how it recognizes that individual as a friend, and how it decides to wag its tail. The dog's possible intentions (for example, receiving a pat on the head), feelings, and awareness of self become the focus of the investigation.

With respect to ontogeny, the question becomes: How does the dog's tail-wagging behaviour develop? The focus here is on investigating the underlying developmental mechanisms that lead to the occurrence of the behaviour. The answer derives from understanding how the sensory-motor mechanisms producing the behaviour are shaped as the dog matures from a puppy into a functional adult animal. Both internal and external factors can shape the behavioral machinery, so understanding the development of the dog's tail-wagging behaviour requires investigating the influence of the dog's genes and its experiences.

With respect to function: How does the dog's tail-wagging behaviour contribute to genetic success? The focus of this question is rooted in the subfield called behavioral ecology; the answer requires investigating the effects of tail wagging on the dog's survival and reproduction (that is, determining how the tail-wagging behaviour helps the dog survive to adulthood, mate, and rear young in order to perpetuate its genes).

Lastly, with respect to evolutionary history, the question becomes: How did tail-wagging behaviour evolve from its ancestral form to its present form? To address this question, scientists must hypothesize evolutionary antecedent behaviours in ancestral species and attempt to reconstruct the sequence of events over evolutionary time that led from the origin of the trait to the one observed today. For example, an antecedent behaviour to tail wagging by dogs might be tail-raising and tail-vibrating behaviours in ancestral wolves. Perhaps when a prey animal was sighted, such behaviours were used to signal other pack members that a chase was about to begin.

Both the biological and the physical sciences seek explanations of natural phenomena in physicochemical terms. The biological sciences (which include the study of behaviour), however, have an extra dimension relative to the physical sciences. In biology, physicochemical explanations are addressed by Tinbergen's questions on causation and ontogeny, which taken together are known as “proximate” causes. The extra dimension of biology seeks explanations of biological phenomena in terms of function and evolutionary history, which together are known as “ultimate” causes. In biology, it is legitimate to ask questions concerning the use of this life process today (its function) and how it came to be over geologic time (its evolutionary history). More specifically, the words use and came to be are applied in special ways, namely “promoting genetic success” and “evolved by means of natural selection.” In physics and chemistry, these types of questions are out of bounds. For example, questions concerning the use of the movements of a dog's tail are reasonable, whereas questions regarding the use of the movements of an ocean's tides are more metaphysical.


Sensory-motor mechanisms

At this level of analysis, questions concern the physiological machinery underlying an animal's behaviour. Behaviour is explained in terms of the firings of the neural circuits between reception of the stimuli (sensory input) and movements of the muscles (motor output). Consider, for example, a worker honeybee (Apis mellifera) flying back to her hive from a field of flowers several kilometres away. The sensory processes the bee employs, the neural computations she performs, and the patterns of muscular activity she uses to make her way home constitute some of the mechanisms underlying the insect's impressive feat of homing. In the course of exploring these mechanisms and those underlying other forms of animal behaviour, physiologists have learned an important lesson regarding the mechanisms underlying behaviour: they are special-purpose adaptations tailored to the particular problems faced by an animal, but they are not all-purpose solutions to general problems faced by all animals. Linked to this lesson is the realization that the physiology of a species will have limitations and biases that reflect individuals' need to deal only with certain behavioral problems and only in specific ecological contexts. In behaviour, as in morphology, an animal's capabilities are matched to its expected environmental requirements, because the process of natural selection shapes organisms as if it were always addressing the question of how much adaptation is enough.

Consider first the sensory abilities of animals. All actions (such as body movements, detection of objects of interest, or learning from others in a social group) begin with the acquisition of information. Thus, an animal's sense organs are exceedingly important to its behaviour. They constitute a set of monitoring instruments with which the animal gathers information about itself and its environment. Each sense organ is selective, responding only to one particular form of energy; an instrument that responds indiscriminately to multiple forms of energy would be rather useless and similar to having none at all. The particular form of energy to which a sense organ responds determines its sensory modality. Three broad categories of sensory modalities are familiar to humans: chemoreception (exemplified by the senses of taste and smell but also including specialized receptors for pheromones and other behaviorally important molecules), mechanoreception (the basis for touch, hearing, balance, and many other senses, such as joint position), and photoreception (light sensitivity, including form and colour vision).

The capabilities of an animal's sense organs differ depending on the behavioral and ecological constraints of the species. In recognition of this fact and of the equally important fact that animals perceive their environments differently than do humans, ethologists have adopted the word Umwelt, a German word for environment, to denote an organism's unique sensory world. The umwelt of a male yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti), for example, differs sharply from that of a human. Whereas the human auditory system hears sounds over a wide range of frequencies, from 20 to about 20,000 Hz, the male mosquito's hearing apparatus has been tuned narrowly to hear only sounds around 380 Hz. Despite its apparent limitations, a male mosquito's auditory system serves him perfectly well, for the only sound he must detect is the enchanting wing-tone whine of a female mosquito hovering nearby, a sound all too familiar to anyone who lingers outdoors on a midsummer's evening.

Pit vipers, colubrid snakes from the subfamily Crotalinae, which include the well-known rattlesnakes, provide another example of how the umwelt of a species serves its own ecological needs. Pit vipers possess directionally sensitive infrared detectors with which they can scan their environment while stalking mammalian prey, such as mice (Mus) and kangaroo rats (Dipodomys), in the dark. A forward-facing sensory pit, located on each side of the snake's head between the eye and the nostril, serves as the animal's heat-sensing organ. Each pit is about 1 to 5 mm (about 0.04 to 0.2 inch) deep. A thin membrane, which is extensively innervated and exquisitely sensitive to temperature increases, stretches from wall to wall inside the pit organ, where it functions like the film in a pinhole camera, registering any nearby source of infrared energy.

Human umwelt is not without its own limits and biases. Human eyes do not see the flashy advertisements to insects that flowers produce by reflecting ultraviolet light, and human ears do not hear the infrasonic calls of elephants or the ultrasonic sounds of bats. Furthermore, human noses are limited relative to those of many other mammals. Moreover, humans completely lack the sense organs for the detection of electric fields or of Earth's geomagnetic field. Sense organs for the former occur in various species of electric fishes (such as electric eels and electric catfish), which use their sensitivity to electric fields for orientation, communication, and prey detection in murky jungle streams, while the latter exist in certain birds and insects, including homing pigeons and honeybees, which use them to navigate back to the home loft or hive. At the same time, unlike most animals, humans are endowed with superb visual acuity and colour vision as a result of having evolved large, high-performance, single-lens eyes.

Each species' nervous system is an assemblage of special-purpose devices with species-specific and sometimes sex-specific capabilities. These capabilities become even more apparent when investigating how animals use their sense organs to acquire information for solving behavioral problems, such as territory defense or prey capture. Although an animal may possess diverse sensory organs that enable it to receive a great deal of information about the environment, in performing a particular behavioral task, it often responds to a rather small portion of the stimuli perceived. Moreover, only a subset of available stimuli reliably provides the information needed to perform a particular task. Ethologists call the crucial stimuli in any particular behavioral context “sign stimuli.”

A classic example of sign stimuli comes from the behaviour of male three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) when these fish defend their mating territories in the springtime against intrusions from rival male sticklebacks. The males differ from all other objects and forms of life in their environment in a special way: they possess an intensely red throat and belly, which serve as signals to females and other males of their health and vigour. Experiments using models of other fish species have shown that the red colour is the paramount stimulus by which a territory-holding male detects an intruder. Models that accurately imitated sticklebacks but lacked the red markings were seldom attacked, whereas models that possessed a red belly but lacked many of the other characteristics of the sticklebacks, or even of fish in general, were vigorously attacked.

Similarly, the brain cells of some toads (Bufo) are tuned to pick out those features of the environment that reliably match the toads' natural prey items (such as earthworms). Experiments were conducted in which a hungry toad was presented with cardboard models moving horizontally around the individual at a constant distance and angular velocity. The research revealed that just two stimuli, the elongation of the object (that is, making the cardboard model longer to increase resemblance to prey) and movement in the direction of the elongation, were sufficient to initiate the toad's prey-catching behaviour. Subsequently, the toad jerked its head after the moving model in order to place it in its frontal visual field. Other stimuli, such as the colour of the model and its velocity of movement, did not influence the toad's ability to distinguish worms from non-worms, even though toads possess good colour and form vision. Even the broadly tuned human sensory system operates in a highly selective, yet adaptive, manner. For instance, a person hunting white-tailed deer seeks the prey almost exclusively by watching closely for deerlike movements amid the stationary trees of a forest, not by straining to sense the deer's shape, smell, or sound.

As with sensory systems, the neural mechanisms by which animals compute solutions to behavioral problems have not evolved to function as general-purpose computers. Rather, the central nervous system (that is, the brain and spinal cord of a vertebrate or one of the segmental ganglia of an invertebrate) performs specific computations associated with the particular ecological challenges that individuals face in their environment. A helpful illustration of this point is the startle response of goldfish (Carassius auratus). If a hungry predatory fish strikes from the side, the goldfish executes a brisk swivelling movement that propels its body sideways by about one body length to dodge the predator's attack. How does the goldfish's central nervous system process information from the sense organs to instantaneously decide the correct direction (right or left) to move? The key neural element in the startle response of the goldfish is a single bilateral pair of neurons, called the Mauthner neurons, located in the goldfish's hindbrain. Each neuron on the left or right receives input from the lateral line system (a row of small pressure sensors that are triggered by the disturbances caused by nearby moving objects) located on the left or right side of the goldfish's body. Each neuron sends output to neurons that activate the musculature on the opposite side of the body. There is strong, mutual inhibition between the left and right Mauthner neurons; should the left one fire in response to a mechanical stimulus from the left side of the body, for example, the right one is inactivated. Inactivation prevents it from interfering with the crucial, initial contractions of the trunk muscles on the goldfish's right side. The net effect is that 20 milliseconds after sensing danger the goldfish assumes a C-like shape with the head and tail bent to the same side and away from the attacker. This reaction is followed 20 milliseconds later by muscle contractions on the other side of the body so that the tail straightens and the fish propels itself sideways, away from the danger. Thus, the two Mauthner neurons of the goldfish's nervous system function exquisitely for processing information regarding predator attacks, and solving this crucial behavioral problem appears to be the only task that they perform.

Small-brained creatures, such as fishes, are not the only species whose nervous systems have evolved to solve tasks in a limited—but ecologically sufficient—way that turns difficult problems of computation into more tractable ones. For example, take the task of a human computing an interception course with a flying object, such as when a baseball player runs to catch a fly ball. In principle, the task could be solved with a set of differential equations based on the observed curvature and acceleration of the ball. What happens instead, evidently, is that the fielder finds a running path that maintains a linear optical trajectory for the ball. In other words, the player adjusts the speed and direction of his movement over the baseball field so that the trajectory of the ball appears to be straight. Unlike the more complicated differential equation approach, the linear trajectory approach does not tell the player when or where the ball will land. Consequently, the player cannot run to the point where the ball will fall and wait for it. If he did, complicating factors such as wind gusts diverting the ball might mean that he would end up in the wrong place. Instead, the player simply keeps his body on a course that will ensure interception.

Once an animal has received information about the world from its sense organs and has computed a solution to whatever behavioral problem it currently faces, it responds with a coordinated set of movements—that is, a behaviour. Any particular movement reflects the patterned activity of a specific set of muscles that work on the skeletal structures to which they are attached. The activity of these muscles is controlled by a specific set of motor neurons that in turn are controlled by sets of interneurons connected to the animal's brain. Thus, a given behaviour is ultimately the result of a specific pattern of neural activity.

Sometimes neural control takes the form of a simple sensory reflex, in which the activity in the motor neurons is triggered by sensory neurons. This activity can be achieved directly or via one or two interneurons. Other times, as in the case of rhythmic behaviour (such as with birds flying or insects walking), a central pattern generator located in the central nervous system produces rhythms of activity in the motor neurons. Central pattern generators do not depend on sensory feedback. Feedback, however, commonly occurs to modulate and reset the rhythm of the motor output after a disturbance to the animal's behaviour, as in the case of air turbulence disrupting the wing movements of a flying bird.

Most commonly, the neural control of behaviour takes the form of a motor command in which the initiation and modulation of activity in the motor neurons is produced by interneurons descending from the animal's brain. The animal's brain is where inputs from multiple sensory modalities are integrated. In this way, a sophisticated tuning of the animal's behaviour in relation to its internal condition and its external circumstances can occur. Often the control of an animal's movements involves an intricate synthesis of all three forms of neural control: patterned neural activity, simple sensory reflex, and motor command. As in all aspects of behavioral physiology, an immense diversity exists among animal species and behaviour patterns in the way the components of behavioral machinery have been linked over time by natural selection.

Cognitive mechanisms

Cognitive psychology proposes yet another way to study the causal mechanisms of animal behaviour. The aim of cognitive psychology is to explain an animal's behaviour in terms of its mental organization for information processing (that is, how the animal acquires, stores, and acts on information present in its world). By studying cognitive mechanisms of an animal, one may study how the animal perceives, learns, memorizes, and makes decisions.

Consider, for example, crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) that crack walnuts open by dropping them from heights of 5 to 10 metres (about 16 to 33 feet) or more onto rocks, roads, or sidewalks. The birds generally avoid dropping the nuts onto soil, where they would be unlikely to break open. Remarkably, the crows can discriminate between black and English walnuts, for they drop the harder black walnuts from greater heights. In addition, when a crow drops a nut, it takes into account the likelihood that a fellow crow might steal the contents before it can be retrieved. If fewer competing crows are perched nearby, the crow carries a nut higher into the air before releasing it. Thus, numerous processes of perception, learning, and decision-making activity underlie the crows' nut-cracking behaviour.

Each of these processes may be analyzed. For example, how do crows judge the height from which to drop nuts? Do they have to learn to adjust the dropping height in relation to the type of walnut? When faced with the conflicting conditions of having a hard-shelled black walnut and seeing a number of other crows nearby, how do they decide what drop height to use?

Until the 1970s, students of animal cognition eschewed speculation about the unobservable processing of information, limiting themselves to explaining behaviours in terms of quantifiable relationships between stimuli and responses. Today, however, they make use of behaviour as a window into how an animal's nervous system processes information. Students of cognition also emphasize the investigation of behaviours in which the animal does not simply respond to immediate stimuli but relies on stored representations of objects and events. For some investigators, mental representations of the environment are the essence of cognition. According to this view, known as the computational-representational approach, the experience of an animal results in the formation in the brain of isomorphisms between brain processes and events in the world. The brain then performs computations on these representations that are ultimately converted to behavioral outputs. For example, a bird assessing the availability of berries on a bush might store information about the time at which it finds each berry as it searches the bush. It might then convert this information, through a brain process equivalent to division, into a representation of the rate of berry collection.

It is possible, however, that the computational-representational approach exaggerates the richness and detail of animals' representations and the complexity of the brain processes operating on them. A good illustration comes from studies of the mechanisms by which ants (Cataglyphis fortis) living in the Sahara desert navigate home after conducting a circuitous search for food (mainly dead insects). Such a search can take these ants 100 metres (about 330 feet) or more (equivalent to 10,000 body lengths) from the entrance of their underground nest. To get back home, the ants rely on landmarks as visual signposts to show the way. Originally, it was assumed that these ants and other insects that orient using landmarks are able to store their knowledge of the nest environs in maplike internal representations called “cognitive maps.” Doing so would give an ant tremendous flexibility in homing: equipped with a bird's-eye knowledge of the terrain over which it travels, an ant could return even from points where it had never before been. The mental representation used by these ants in landmark guidance is, however, actually somewhat simpler. Experiments have revealed that each ant stores a two-dimensional visual template—a kind of snapshot—of the landmark array it saw when it left its nest. When returning to its nest, the ant moves so as to match the current visual image as closely as possible with the memorized template. The snapshot-matching mechanism, unlike the cognitive-map one, enables an ant to steer its way home only from points it has recently visited, as opposed to novel sites to which it might be displaced by an experimenter. Although this mental mechanism provides a less complete and less flexible solution to the problem of finding home, it is entirely sufficient for the problems that desert ants routinely face.

An unseen and therefore largely unappreciated aspect of behaviour is the use of decision-making rules or “Darwinian algorithms.” Organisms rely on these rules to process information from their physical and social environments and result in particular behavioral outputs that guide key behavioral and life-history decisions. Darwinian algorithms are made up of the sensory and cognitive processes that perceive and prioritize cues within an individual's perceptual range. These inputs are then translated into motor outputs. A Darwinian algorithm may involve a stimulus threshold (such as “when the day-length exceeds 10 hours, migrate north”) or may depend on the occurrence of a cue that is normally associated with a fitness-enhancing outcome (such as “build nests in dense vegetation where chick survival is predictably high”). Darwinian algorithms are shaped through evolutionary time by the specific selective regime of each population. Which cues are relied upon depends on the certainty with which a cue can be recognized, the reliability of the relationship between the cue and the anticipated environmental outcome, and the fitness benefits of making a correct decision versus the costs of making an incorrect decision. In general, Darwinian algorithms underlying behavioral and life-history decisions are only as complex as is necessary to yield adaptive outcomes under a species' normal environmental circumstances but not so complex as to cover all experimentally or anthropogenically induced contingencies.

An intriguing question in the study of animal cognition is the role of consciousness. Humans easily distinguish between merely responding to objects and being conscious of them. For example, while driving along a highway deep in thought or conversation, the driver may suddenly realize that he has not been conscious of the road for the past several miles. Indeed, it is well documented that humans can effectively perceive, memorize, process, and even act on objects and events without the kind of awareness that underlies a verbal report of consciousness. It is possible, therefore, that the behaviour of animals occurs without conscious awareness. However, given that humans have consciousness, it seems reasonable to suppose that individuals in other species, especially social species (such as primates), also experience at least a rudimentary form of consciousness. To think otherwise would be to presume an evolutionary discontinuity between humans and all other forms of life. Thus, the possibility that at least some of the behaviour of animals is accompanied by conscious thinking seems reasonable.

Although most students of animal behaviour accept the idea that animal consciousness is a likely possibility, some argue that it is not yet possible to know whether any particular animal experiences consciousness because it is a private, subjective, and, ultimately, unknowable state. In contrast, cognitive ethologists (a separate group of animal behaviourists), most notably American biophysicist and animal behaviourist Donald Griffin, argue that animals are undoubtedly conscious, since individuals from a wide variety of species behave with apparent intentions of achieving certain goals. For example, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) stalking a monkey high above them in the treetops will distribute themselves among the trees that would otherwise provide the monkey with an escape route and attack the creature simultaneously. Similarly, groups of female lions (Panthera leo) fan out widely and then coordinate their attacks on ungulate prey. In another example, a raven (Corvus corax), when presented with the novel situation of a meat morsel dangling from a long string tied to a perch, will study the situation briefly before it acts. Subsequently, the raven will quickly procure the meat by repeatedly pulling up a length of the string with its beak and clamping each length pulled up with its feet while sitting on the perch. Studies of the states and mechanisms of animal consciousness represent important frontiers of future research.


Just as a thorough understanding of an animal's morphology requires knowledge of how it develops before it hatches from an egg or emerges from its mother's womb, a complete understanding of an animal's behaviour requires knowledge of the animal's development during its lifetime. To gain this knowledge, one asks how the individual's genes and its experiences cause it to behave as it does. The ontogeny of behaviour is a subject which arouses considerable interest, perhaps because of the seeming contrast between humans and other animals in how behavioral skills are acquired. Whereas humans extensively adjust their behaviour based on experience (that is, through the process of learning), the behaviour of many animal species seems to be automatic, as if it were pre-programmed. And yet, if there really were a difference between humans and other animals in how behaviour develops, it would certainly be one of degree, not of kind.

Behavioral development is a field of study in which there have been intense clashes of opinion. Prior to the 1960s there existed a profound disagreement between European (particularly German) ethologists and American psychologists regarding methods and interpretations of such studies. The ethologists described many examples of animals showing complex behaviour patterns in response to particular stimuli under circumstances that seemed to preclude the opportunity for learning. Indeed, learning (based on external influences) was contrasted with genetic control of behaviour (based on internal influences). Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who won a Nobel Prize for his ethological studies, went so far as to classify behaviour patterns into two distinct categories: acquired and innate.

Regarding the latter, adult herring gulls (Larus argentatus) have a red spot on the lower tip of their bill. When these birds have food for their chicks, the adults point their bill downward while waving it slowly back and forth in front of the young. Newly hatched chicks will accurately peck at the red spot on the parent bird's bill, suggesting that a herring gull chick possesses innate (that is, genetically based) knowledge of where to peck for food. Ethologists termed pecking behaviour a “fixed action pattern” to indicate that it was performed automatically and correctly the first time it was elicited, apparently regardless of the animal's experience.

The psychologists, in contrast, assumed that experiences with the environment (that is, learning processes) were the main, or even exclusive, determinants of ontogeny. Accordingly, they saw nothing in the pecking behaviour of herring gull chicks that could not be explained by learning while still in the egg, conditioning, or by trial-and-error learning. For example, chicks might “learn” to peck before hatching as a result of the rhythmic beating of their heart, or they might have a pecking reflex and simply learn to associate a food reward with pecking at the parent's bill. Moreover, a chick's pecking accuracy improves with age, and after about two days it requires, in addition to the red spot, the complete configuration of an adult's head and bill to elicit pecking.

What the acquired-innate dichotomy obscured is that learning is possible only after the animal has already been steered by its genes to develop its behaviour in a certain way. An animal may well learn, but which experiences are important to the development of its behaviour depend on those that have promoted the genetic success of its ancestors. Reciprocally, whatever experiences an individual already has had can influence how its genes are activated and thus can affect their subsequent role in shaping its behaviour. Modern animal behaviourists see the stark dichotomy of acquired versus innate as far too simplistic; no behaviour is either strictly innate or entirely learned. Rather, all behaviours are the result of a complex interaction between genes and the environment.

Behavioral genetics

The evidence is now compelling that genes influence behaviour in all animals, including humans. Indeed, an increasing share of biomedical research is devoted to the hunt for genes involved in human behavioral maladies such as alcoholism, obesity, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer disease. Often these studies are pursued using animal models with subjects that include mice, rats, and dogs with behavioral symptoms resembling those of humans. It is, therefore, unfortunate that the idea that genes affect behaviour is the subject of much heated and confused discussion. The principal point of confusion arises from equating genetic influence on behaviour with genetic determination of behaviour. To do so is to mistakenly believe that identifying genes “for” a behaviour implies that the gene controls, fully and inevitably, this behaviour. In actuality, to say that there are genes “for” a particular behaviour means only that within a population of individuals there exists genetic variation underlying some of the differences in this specific behaviour. To cite an example involving a morphological trait, the statement that there are genes for coat colour in guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) or horses (Equus caballus) means that genetic variation in the guinea pig or horse population is responsible for some of the variation in coat colour.

Furthermore, identifying a gene that influences a behaviour does not imply that the behaviour is inevitable; there is considerable variation among behaviours in the relative importance of the individual's genetic constitution and its environment to the expression of the behaviour. Occasionally, the possession of a particular form of a gene does consistently result in the individual having a particular form of a behaviour; more frequently, however, the form of the behaviour is due to a complex interaction between genes and environment.

The strength of the influence of genes on a particular behaviour is quantified by a genetic measure called “heritability.” Heritability is defined as the fraction of the total variation in a trait among individuals in a population that is attributable to the genetic variation among those individuals. The remaining source of the variation is, of course, the environment. Values of heritability range between zero and one. The smaller the environmental variation experienced by the individuals in a population, the greater will be the fraction of the total variation in the behaviour that is the result of genetic variation.

One way to measure the heritability of a behavioral trait is to determine the average values of the behaviour for the parents and offspring in a sample of families within a population and calculate the linear relationship between offspring values and parental values. The slope of this line reveals the heritability of the behavioral trait in that population. For example, the heritability of the calling behaviour that male crickets (Gryllus integer) use to attract females has been measured. In any one population, some males chirp away for many hours each night, others call for just a few hours, and still others almost never call. The heritability of calling duration for one Canadian population that was studied was 0.53. The value indicates that slightly more than half of the variation in calling duration arose because males differed genetically and slightly less than half arose from environmental differences. (For example, the more parasites a cricket had acquired, the less food he had obtained, and thus the less he might be able to call on a given night.)

The degree of genetic influence on a particular behaviour is not a fixed characteristic. Rather, heritability can vary greatly depending on how much environmental variation is experienced by individuals in the specific population being studied. Thus, regarding the calling behaviour of male crickets, if every male fed well, thereby eliminating several environmental influences on calling, the numerical value of heritability would be considerably higher.

Numerous studies involving diverse species, including humans, have detected some level of heritability for every trait that has ever been examined. For example, the mean value of heritability for morphological traits, such as body and wing length, is 0.46; for life history traits, such as fecundity and life span, is 0.26; and for behavioral traits, such as calling duration and fighting stamina, is 0.30. Thus, the genetic influence on the characteristics of individual animals falls generally between 30 and 50 percent for most traits.

Instinctive learning

An animal adjusts its behaviour based on experience—that is, it learns—when experience at one time provides information that will be useful at a later time. Viewed in this light, learning is seen as a tool for survival and reproduction because it helps an animal to adjust its behaviour to the particular state of its environment. An animal needs to know such things as what food is good to eat, when and where to find it, whom to avoid and approach, with whom to mate, and how to find its way home. When these things are not genetically preprogrammed—because they depend on the particular circumstances of an individual's time and place—the animal must learn them.

Consider, for example, a female digger wasp called the bee wolf (Philanthus triangulum) who has finished excavating a tunnel in a sandy bank. She then digs a small outpocket where one of her young will develop, and she stocks this cell with worker honeybees (Apis mellifera), which she has paralyzed by stinging and which will serve to provision her young. After laying an egg on one of the bees, she closes off the cell with sand and starts work on a new cell. To provision the cell, she must fly out to hunt more honeybees; however, after crawling out of her nest burrow, closing its entrance hole, and launching into flight, she does not immediately depart the area. Instead, she hovers just over her nest site, inspecting the ground and flying in wider and wider arcs to scan an ever-increasing area. During this elaborate departure flight, the wasp memorizes the specific configuration of landmarks—sticks, tufts of grass, and trees—around her burrow. Later, when she returns, she will use the information to pinpoint her nest's location. Her genes cannot provide her with knowledge of the landmark array around her nest, so she must learn it.

One of the clearest indications of the falseness of the old dichotomy between innate and learned behaviour is the fact that in most cases animals are genetically predisposed to acquire only specific information in developing their behaviour. One might say that most of the learning performed by animals is instinctive learning. This phenomenon is conspicuous in the flower-learning behaviour of honeybees (A. mellifera). Since at least the time of the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle (384–322 BCE), it has been known that worker bees show “flower constancy,” a specialization by individual bees on a single species of flower. Flower constancy occurs in spite of the fact that honeybees are generalist foragers capable of exploiting many flower species. The flowers have much to gain from bees that remain faithful to them; specialist bees will be carrying the appropriate species of pollen. Therefore, the colours and odours of flowers probably evolved as conspicuous signals for the bees to learn. In turn, specialization benefits the bees by reducing flower-handling time and facilitating the collection of nectar.

Early in the 20th century, Austrian biologist Karl von Frisch demonstrated experimentally that honeybees are able to learn and distinguish a single floral odour from among at least 700 others. In addition, he found that they could distinguish colour from yellow into the ultraviolet across the electromagnetic spectrum. One striking feature of this type of colour and odour learning is the rigid programming of the timing. Research has revealed that a bee learns the flower's colour only during the final few seconds before beginning to feed, and odour learning occurs during feeding. It is as if bees possess a set of switches that turn colour and odour learning on and off at specific times during the foraging process. The time course of this learning program is highly adaptive, being restricted to times when a bee is alighted on a rewarding flower. In this manner, its learning is focused on the colour and odour of the flowers of this rewarding species rather than on the hues and scents of any nearby flowers of unrewarding species.

Is this machinelike learning of bees fundamentally different from the learning processes in vertebrates? Until the mid-1960s, psychologists generally believed so. Studying mainly birds and mammals, they developed an approach known as “general process learning theory,” which attempted to account for learning with a single set of principles, namely unconstrained “associative learning” as studied in instrumental (operant) conditioning and classical (Pavlovian) conditioning. Associative learning is said to occur when an animal changes its behaviour upon forming an association between an environmental event and its own response to the event. In operant conditioning, the animal learns to associate a voluntary activity with specific consequences. In classical conditioning, the animal learns to associate a novel (conditioned) stimulus with a familiar (unconditioned) one. For example, in his study of classical conditioning, Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov demonstrated that by consistently exposing a dog to a particular sound (novel stimulus) and simultaneously placing meat powder (familiar stimulus) in its mouth the dog could be made to salivate upon hearing the sound even without the meat stimulus. Initially, salivation was the unconditioned response, whereas the food stimulus was the unconditioned stimulus. Once the dog learned to associate the sound stimulus with the food stimulus, salivation became the conditioned stimulus to sound—that is, a stimulus that previously did not trigger a response.

The popularity of general process learning theory peaked in the 1940s and '50s. In the mid-1960s, however, American psychologist John Garcia discovered several puzzling phenomena that indicated adaptive limits on learning and contradicted the supposedly general principles of conditioning. One of the most important of these anomalies was flavour aversion learning. When rats (Rattus norvegicus) and many other vertebrates, including humans, sample a flavour and later become ill, they learn to avoid consuming that flavour in the future. This phenomenon has two remarkable properties. First, it occurs despite delays of several hours between experiencing the flavour (the conditioned stimulus, or CS, in the Pavlovian conditioning paradigm) and experiencing the illness (the unconditioned stimulus, or US); it does not require the brief delay specified by the general principles of conditioning. Second, in rats, learning with the US being illness is limited to flavours. This response was revealed in an experiment in which rats experienced a flash of light and the sound of a buzzer each time they took a drink from a tube of flavoured water (hence “bright noisy tasty water” became the CS). Some of the rats were made ill (nauseous) after drinking (hence illness became the US for them), whereas others were shocked through the feet shortly after they began drinking (hence pain became the US for them). After conditioning, the rats were tested with the noise plus the light alone or with the flavour alone. Those rats that had been made ill avoided drinking only the “tasty water,” whereas the rats that had been shocked avoided drinking only the “bright noisy water.” In other words, the rats could learn to associate a taste with an illness but not a visual and auditory stimulus. Conversely, the rats could learn to associate a visual and auditory stimulus, but not a taste, with pain.

These findings attracted tremendous skepticism when they were first reported because both the long delay between CS and US and the CS-US specificity contradicted the idea of general laws of learning. Both findings, however, make considerable sense in light of the problems faced by rats living in nature. If they consume a new food and become ill even hours later, they will not eat the food again and thus not suffer the illness associated with the food. Moreover, it is adaptive that rats learn to associate a taste cue, not an auditory or visual cue, with illness-causing food because rats discriminate foods best using chemical cues sensed by taste, olfaction, or both. In contrast, something that causes pain is best recognized from a safe distance. Therefore, it is adaptive that rats learn to associate auditory and visual cues with painful experiences. Thus, these “anomalies” for general process learning theory can be understood by considering the functions that the rats' learning has evolved to serve.

There is now compelling evidence that humans also possess adaptive predispositions in learning abilities. Consider, for example, the curious anthropological discovery made in 1926 by Finnish sociologist Edward Westermarck that arranged marriages between children that grow up together (whether biological siblings or not) are far more likely to fail than arranged marriages between individuals not raised together. The failures most often result from sexual incompatibilities. Evidently, children are genetically guided to learn to treat as siblings all individuals with whom they are raised together. And because siblings tend to avoid sexual contact, presumably due to a long evolutionary history of detrimental consequences associated with inbreeding, marriages between these individuals tend to fail.

Today it is widely recognized that the general-purpose psychological approach to learning had overlooked its biological significance and that animals possess learning mechanisms that are specialized for solving the problems they face in the natural world. This view of learning explains the psychologists' observations of the limits of learning by animals in laboratory settings. It also makes sense of ethological reports of special forms of learning, such as imprinting (that is, the rapid identification of parents by newborn animals triggered by following the first object they see moving away from them), which have been studied in naturalistic settings. To a large extent, this picture of instinctive learning has brought a constructive end to the centuries-old debate about whether “nature” (genes) or “nurture” (experiences) is the source of adaptive behaviour of animals. Animals are shaped by their experiences; however, the interpretation of each experience is governed by a collection of rules (Darwinian algorithms) set by the genes in each species.

The general-purpose view of learning that prevailed during most of the 20th century was based on two assumptions: (1) the ability to learn is always beneficial, and (2) animal learning abilities are like human learning abilities, which seem to be of completely general and unlimited applicability. Neither assumption is correct.

First, there are costs as well as benefits to learning, so learning abilities will be beneficial, and favoured by natural selection, only when the benefits outweigh the costs. The costs include those involved in building and maintaining the required neural circuitry and also the time and mistakes involved in learning while the animal is fine-tuning its behaviour to the current or likely future state of its environment. When learning is a matter of life or death—as in geese (Anser and Branta), sheep (Ovis), and antelopes (family Antilopinae), where newborn young must keep up with mobile parents—the advantage of rapid learning (that is, staying together) and the danger of slow learning (that is, lagging behind) are both extremely high. By considering both the fitness costs and the benefits of different forms of learning, one can readily appreciate the reasons why imprinting occurs in these species, rather than the slower process of trial-and-error learning.

Second, as described earlier, the learning abilities of animals, including humans, are not completely general; learning abilities are adaptively specialized so that, in any particular context, animals take in only the most relevant information. Late in his career, Lorenz referred to “the innate schoolmarm,” a phrase that picturesquely expresses the reality that animals possess adaptive predispositions in their learning.


In studying the function of a behavioral characteristic of an animal, a researcher seeks to understand how natural selection favours the behaviour. In other words, the researcher tries to identify the ecological challenges, or “selection pressures,” faced by a species and then investigates how a particular behavioral trait helps individuals surmount these obstacles so that they can survive and reproduce. In short, the question being asked is: What is the behaviour good for?

Until the mid-1960s, functional interpretations of animal behaviour were usually made in terms of how a behaviour was “good for the species.” Social behaviours that excluded some individuals from reproducing (such as territorial defense and courtship displays) were seen as adaptations for regulating animal populations at levels that would prevent overpopulation, environmental destruction, and extinction of the species. This view was based on the observation of ecological phenomena—such as the overgrazing of grassland by cattle, leading to the starvation of the animals. American evolutionary biologist George C. Williams and British ornithologist David Lack, however, revealed the underlying theoretical problem with the view that animals behave in ways that limit their reproduction for the good of their species. Williams noted that individuals who maximize their own reproduction will have greater genetic success than those who behave in ways that limit their reproduction. Thus, over time, in subsequent generations, reproduction-reducing behaviours will be replaced by reproduction-enhancing ones. Therefore, it has become evident that it is incorrect to interpret the behaviour of animals as having evolved to function “for the good of the species.” Instead, the appropriate interpretation is how a behaviour has evolved for the “good of the individual.”

Williams's theoretical argument was bolstered by Lack's long-term study of the reproductive behaviour of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica). At first glance, swifts appear to voluntarily restrict their own reproduction. When Lack removed the eggs laid each day from a pair's nest he discovered that the female could lay up to 72 or more eggs in a season. Yet, surprisingly, she usually lays just two or three eggs. Are chimney swifts regulating their egg production to avoid overpopulation, or does the number of eggs laid equal the number of young they can successfully rear each year? Lack answered this question by performing the experiment of adding one or two nestlings to the nests of certain pairs so that, instead of the normal two or three young, they would have to rear four or five. He then compared the reproductive success of these pairs to those that were left rearing the normal number. Lack found that the birds with four or five young were less successful (that is, rearing fewer young to fledging) than those in a control group who reared a normal-sized brood. Therefore, chimney swifts, in rearing just two or three offspring, are not withholding reproduction for the good of their species or local population; instead, they are producing as many young as they can successfully rear given a limited food supply, thereby maximizing their own reproduction.

Chimney swifts provide just one example of a pattern that has been found repeatedly by biologists studying the behaviour and reproduction of animals. They have found that individuals are “selfish,” behaving in ways that benefit their own reproduction regardless of its long-term effect on the survival of their species. Sometimes, however, animals engage in apparent altruism (that is, they exhibit behaviour that increases the fitness of other individuals by engaging in activities that decrease their own reproductive success). For example, American zoologist Paul Sherman found that female Belding's ground squirrels (Spermophilus beldingi) give staccato whistles that warn nearby conspecifics of a predator's approach but also attract the predator's attention to the caller. Likewise, worker honeybees (Apis mellifera) perform suicidal attacks on intruders to defend their colony, and female lions (Panthera leo) sometimes nurse cubs that are not their own (although some authorities note that such cubs suckle the lioness when she is asleep).

The key insight to understanding the evolution of such self-sacrificial behaviour was provided by British evolutionary biologist William D. Hamilton in the mid-1960s. He argued that natural selection favours genetic success, not reproductive success per se, and that individuals can pass copies of their genes on to future generations. Genes are passed from direct parentage (the rearing of offspring and grand-offspring) and by assisting the reproduction of close relatives (such as nieces and nephews), a concept referred to as “inclusive fitness” or “kin selection.”

Hamilton devised a formula—now called Hamilton's rule—that specifies the conditions under which reproductive altruism evolves:

r ´ B > C

where B is the benefit (in number of offspring equivalents) gained by the recipient of the altruism, C is the cost (in number of offspring equivalents) suffered by the donor while undertaking the altruistic behaviour, and r is the genetic relatedness of the altruist to the beneficiary. Relatedness is the probability that a gene in the potential altruist is shared by the potential recipient of the altruistic behaviour. Altruism can evolve in a population if a potential donor of assistance can more than make up for losing C offspring by adding to the population B offspring bearing a fraction r of its genes. For example, a female lion with a well-nourished cub gains inclusive fitness by nursing a starving cub of a full sister because the benefit to her sister (B = one offspring that would otherwise die) more than compensates for the loss to herself (C = approximately one quarter of an offspring), since the survival probability of her own, non-starving cub is only slightly reduced. Given that the average genetic relatedness (that is, r) between two full sisters is 0.5, then according to Hamilton's rule (0.5 ´ 1) > 0.25. In essence, genes for altruism spread by promoting aid to copies of themselves.

According to this view, which was popularized by British zoologist Richard Dawkins, the most appropriate way of viewing natural selection is from a gene-selection perspective, as embodied in Hamilton's rule. Genes that are best able to guide the organisms that bear them to propagate successfully will persist and proliferate over generations. Consequently, an explanation of the function of a particular behaviour should include how the behaviour promotes the success of the genes that underlie the behaviour. Of course, since an animal's behaviour almost always promotes genetic success by helping the animal survive and reproduce its genes, investigations of behavioral function typically address the survival and reproductive value of the behaviour.

Natural selection in action

The most straightforward way to study the function of a behaviour is to see how natural selection operates on it under current conditions by studying differential reproduction. Often this kind of investigation can be conducted by exploiting the naturally occurring variation among individuals, such as in a particular phenotypic (observable) trait in a population. Sometimes, however, the researcher must experimentally enhance behavioral variation where too little exists in nature. The experimental approach may have the disadvantage of involving unnatural variants, but it has the advantage of revealing how differences among individuals, even in a single trait, can cause variation in reproductive fitness. Either way, a study of natural selection acting on behaviour requires that the researcher be able to observe natural populations and obtain detailed information on each individual's survival, its ability to attract a mate, its fertility, and so forth. All of this information is essential to assess an animal's success in passing on its genes.

An investigation of why male titmice, or great tits (Parus major), woodland birds of Europe, sing multiple songs serves to illustrate how a behavioral function can be studied by exploiting naturally existing variation. Each great tit male has a repertoire of one to eight songs that he uses to advertise his presence on a territory. Investigators can acquire detailed information on the breeding biology of these birds because great tits are cavity nesters that readily accept man-made nest boxes. In one experiment on a wooded estate near Oxford, Eng., English zoologist John Krebs and his colleagues installed and regularly inspected nest boxes during the breeding season. The researchers recorded the singing behaviour of each breeding male in order to determine repertoire size. They also recorded the egg-laying date, the clutch size (number of eggs), the brood size (number of young), and the fledgling weight for the nests of numerous males. It was possible to monitor the survival of each male's young to the time of its own breeding, because all the young were banded before they fledged and most fledglings returned to the same woods to breed themselves.

The researchers found that individual tits had different repertoire sizes. Males with larger repertoires had chicks that were heavier at fledging, and more of these chicks survived to breed than offspring of males with smaller repertoires. Thus male repertoire size and reproductive success were correlated. The underlying mechanism is that males with larger song repertoires were able to acquire superior territories—specifically, ones with better food. Previous studies had shown that size and survival of young tits depend on body weight at time of fledging: the bigger and heavier the fledgling, the greater its chances of survival to maturity. Thus, the function of a great tit male's singing multiple songs is to help him secure a top-quality breeding territory and mate. So why do all males not sing multiple songs? Perhaps songs are learned over time, so that only the oldest males can possess a large repertoire. Alternatively, perhaps there are costs (such as time away from foraging or increased vulnerability to predators) to singing multiple songs, and only the biggest, strongest males can sing many songs and still survive.

Direct comparisons of individuals of the same species exhibiting natural variation in behaviour is a revealing way to study behavioral function. However, when appropriate natural variations do not exist, experimental manipulations can provide the needed variation in the behaviour. The variant forms are then studied in the field to determine how well extreme forms of the behaviour do in the face of natural selection. Using this method, American biologist Thomas Seeley investigated nest site choice in a species of Southeast Asian honeybee, Apis florea. Colonies build their nests of beeswax combs amid dense foliage, suspended from the branches of bushes and understory trees. Moreover, if a colony's nest loses its cover during the dry season when many trees shed their leaves, the colony will build its new nest in another leafy site. What is the function of this behaviour of nesting in dense vegetation? Is it to prevent the nest from overheating under the strong tropical sun, or to conceal the nest from predators, or both?

To test the antipredator hypothesis, pairs of naturally occurring colonies were identified. Within each pair the vegetation around the nest of one colony, which served as the experimental unit, was removed, leaving only enough to provide shade but rendering it conspicuous to predators. The vegetation surrounding the nest of the second colony, which served as the control, was not removed. Measurements of nest site temperatures one day later revealed no significant differences between the two nests. Within one week, however, four of the seven experimental colonies had been discovered and destroyed by predators (probably monkeys and tree shrews) whereas none of the control nests had suffered any damage. Thus, it appears that A. florea colonies choose dense vegetation as nesting sites primarily to conceal their nests from predators.

Another example of a well-controlled field experiment on the function of behaviour is Dutch-born British zoologist and ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen's pioneering study of eggshell removal by black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus). In a matter of hours after their eggs hatch, they pick up the empty eggshells, fly off, and drop them well away from the nest. Why should a gull engage in this behaviour? One hypothesis was that the sharp edges of the shells might injure the chicks, a danger that is well known to poultry breeders. Another hypothesis was that the white insides of broken shells might attract predators, such as crows and herring gulls flying overhead, and so endanger the brood. To test the latter hypothesis, Tinbergen and his colleagues distributed single gull decoy eggs around the dunes where the black-headed gulls nest, and placed broken eggshells near some of the decoy eggs while leaving others isolated. The investigators found that the eggs near broken shells were preyed upon sooner than the isolated, less conspicuous eggs. Evidently, the removal of broken eggshells from the nest by gulls helps to maintain the camouflage of the brood, thereby reducing predation.

Adaptive design

Many features of animal behaviour are so well suited to their function that it is impossible to imagine that they arose by chance. Echolocation by bats, the nest-building skills of weaver birds (family Ploceidae), and the alarm signals of ground squirrels all serve obvious purposes, and the mechanisms that enable them are remarkably similar to what engineers would design to achieve those ends. However, such adaptive behaviours have no divine designer but instead have arisen through the process of natural selection.

Natural selection is an inherently optimizing process: it favours those versions of an organism's traits, including behavioral ones, which best enable the organism to propagate copies of its genes into future generations over alternative versions with lower fitness. Creating a formal optimality model is one way to infer the adaptive “design” or function of a behaviour. Using an engineering or economic model to work out the optimal behavioral solution for a given ecological problem is a way of specifying the best design out of a wide range of alternative possibilities. Therefore, if an optimality model embodies an accurate understanding of the function of a behaviour, it can predict the form of the behaviour that is observed in nature.

One of the attractions of using optimality models to test hypotheses about functional design is that these models yield quantitative predictions that can be easily tested. If a model's predictions regarding the form of a behaviour do not match reality, one knows immediately that the hypothesis expressed in the model is false. For example, foraging honeybees often return to the hive with less than a full load of nectar, and biologists initially assumed this was because a bee maximizes its rate of energy delivery to the hive. The fuller the bee, however, the slower she can fly. As a result, the transportation of a full load was assumed to depress a bee's rate of nectar collection. On the other hand, when the bees were trained to forage from an array of artificial flowers in which each flower offered a fixed amount of nectar and the time spent flying between flowers was varied to alter the duration and cost of foraging, the size of the bee's load did not maximize her net rate of energy delivery to the hive. Further analysis revealed that a bee's decision of when she would return to the hive is based on the maximization of foraging efficiency. Evidently, bees behave so as to achieve the highest foraging efficiency rather than the highest food-delivery rate to the hive.

A classic example of application of the optimality approach to understanding the adaptive design of a behaviour is a study of copulation time in the yellow dung fly (Scatophaga stercoraria) by British evolutionary biologist Geoffrey A. Parker. Shortly after cow excrement is deposited in a meadow, it is invaded by female dung flies that come to lay their eggs on the dung and by males seeking to mate with the females. Competition among the males for females is fierce. Sometimes one male succeeds in kicking a rival off a female during copulation and mounts her himself. Unfortunately for the first male, this means that some of the female's eggs will be fertilized by the second male. The longer the first male copulates, the more eggs he fertilizes, but the returns for extra copulation time diminish rapidly. How much time should a male spend copulating with a female? Should he copulate for as long as is needed to fertilize all the eggs (about 100 minutes), or should he quit earlier (or permit himself to be displaced) so that he can go search for a new female? Parker hypothesized that a male dung fly chooses a copulation time that maximizes his overall rate of egg fertilizations. He tested his hypothesis using a graphical optimality model.

Before a male dung fly that has just finished copulating with a female can copulate with a new one, he must spend on average 156 minutes searching for her. Once he has found a new female, the proportion of her eggs fertilized by him as a function of copulation time is set by female physiology, and this has been quantified as a curve based on experimentally measured values. The male cannot shorten the time necessary to find a new female or change the fertilization curve, but he can stop copulating at will. The optimal solution, assuming that his decision regarding copulation duration serves to maximize his rate of egg fertilizations, is to copulate for 41 minutes. Because the average observed copulation time, 38 minutes, is quite close to the predicted time of 41 minutes, it is clear that the Darwinian algorithm underlying a male dung fly's copulation behaviour serves to maximize his rate of egg fertilizations.

A second way of studying the adaptive design of a behaviour is what Darwin called the comparative method, which takes advantage of the thousands of “natural experiments” that have occurred over evolutionary time (that is, throughout the formation of new species and the evolution of their special characteristics). Here again, specific hypotheses regarding how natural selection has shaped a behaviour are tested. Rather than simply examining one species, behavioral researchers collect data from a number of species simultaneously. The idea is to compare the degree to which a particular behaviour occurs in each species with the degree to which the hypothesized selection pressure is part of the ecology of each species.

Australian zoologist Peter Jarman was one of the first to use the comparative method to study the diversity of mating systems, specifically among various species of African antelope. In some species, such as the dik-dik (Madoqua), individuals are solitary and cryptic; however, during mating season, they form conspicuous monogamous pairs. Others, such as the black wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), form enormous herds. During the breeding season, only a few males control sexual access to a group of females in a polygynous mating system. When Jarman compared these African ungulates, he found that body size, typical habitat, group size, and mating system were interrelated. Specifically, smaller species with relatively high metabolic rates (such as the dik-dik) need to consume high-quality food—such as fruits and buds in the forests—while concealing themselves from predators. Because of the sparse distribution of food and the need to remain solitary and cryptic to avoid capture by predators, the smaller species are widely dispersed, leaving no opportunity for a single male to monopolize access to many females. Consequently, small-bodied species tend to be monogamous. In contrast, the larger species graze in open plains where food is generally abundant, although seasonally variable in its geographic distribution, and they are highly visible to predators. Thus, species such as the wildebeest live in large herds that migrate with the seasons. Each individual may be hidden within the large number of other animals in the herd; however, group living creates the opportunity for one male to monopolize several females, and polygyny tends to be found in the large-bodied species. This pattern, which holds true for birds and primates as well as ungulates, supports the hypothesis that the mating system of a species is derived from selection pressures associated with food and predation. Selection pressures determine the spatial distribution of females and thus their defensibility by individual males.

Not all comparative analyses of behaviour are so broad. Some focus on just one behaviour or a morphological correlate of behaviour. Consider the case of sexual dimorphism in body size where the males of some species tend to be considerably larger than the females. It had been hypothesized that size is a key advantage in species where males must fight to defend females from rival males. To test the hypothesis that sexual dimorphism was favoured by natural selection, American evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander and his colleagues compared social structure of the breeding group in primates, ungulates, and pinnipeds with their degree of body-size dimorphism. They reported that body size is similar between males and females in species, including humans, where the breeding group typically consists of one male and one female or a few females. Male body size, however, increases compared with female body size in species that breed in groups made up of multiple males and females, and it is highest in species where a single male defends a large group of females. Evidently, male size in primates is an adaptation related to the intensity of male-male physical competition for females.

Evolutionary history of behaviour

Biologists have always been fascinated with the question of where the traits that exist today came from—that is, their evolutionary history. However, exploration of the history of behaviours and their underlying mechanisms is exceptionally challenging. (Unfortunately, the fossil record is largely uninformative.) Only under rare circumstances, such as the discovery of a fossilized dinosaur nest topped by an adult (a situation suggestive of parental care), is there sufficient information captured in fossils to enable paleontologists to draw inferences about the origin and subsequent evolution of complex social or reproductive behaviours. As a result, it has been necessary to develop alternative and indirect approaches to infer evolutionary histories of behaviours.

Character mapping

The first approach, called character mapping, begins by constructing a phylogenetic tree (that is, a depiction of the presumed relationship of a species of interest to its closest living relatives). Phylogeny refers to the evolutionary history of one or a group of interrelated species. Hypotheses regarding phylogenetic relationships often are based on similarities among existing species in morphological traits and DNA sequences. Once the phylogenetic tree is established, character states, or behaviours (such as parental care), of extant species are attached, or “mapped,” to it. Sites on the tree called ancestral nodes are drawn where changes in the behaviour of interest apparently occurs. This is accomplished by minimizing the number of character state transitions, or changes, necessary to account for all the diversity seen among the related species today. In other words, the shortest evolutionary path taken by any character from its origin to the present is considered to be the “most parsimonious” (that is, requiring the fewest changes) and, therefore, the most probable. Assuming that the behaviours of extant species have remained the same since the last speciation event in their lineage and that the shortest evolutionary path is indeed most likely, a hypothesis can be formulated about the relative timing of the origins of various behaviours and their subsequent loss or evolutionary modification. These assumptions are most valid for complex behaviours whose evolution required many improbable changes rather than highly variable (plastic) behaviours. Moreover, it is more reasonable to suppose that a complex behaviour that is shared by two or more species was present in a common ancestor than that it evolved multiple times independently.

Phylogenetic reconstructions and character mapping have been used to infer the historical trajectories of male secondary sexual characteristics and female mating preferences in several taxa, such as Central American frogs (Physalaemus) and swordtail fishes (Xiphophorus). In the frogs, electrophysiological studies of present-day species indicate that females have identical auditory preferences regardless of the acoustic characteristics of the mating calls of the males. The most parsimonious hypothesis, therefore, is that female preferences evolved first (that is, they are ancestral or older), and that male calls evolved secondarily in some species to take advantage of these preexisting preferences. In the swordtail fishes, females in species with and without swords prefer males with artificial swords attached to their caudal fins over unsworded males. The hypothesis that ancestral females possessed the preference for a swordlike structure is more parsimonious than that the preference for swords evolved multiple times independently in the lineage of each existing species.

One general problem with the character mapping approach is that the most parsimonious evolutionary pathway may not be the most likely. Evolutionary change is seldom unidirectional, so small changes in characters in one direction or the other may have occurred multiple times over the evolutionary history of a species group. A more specific problem with inferring the evolutionary history of sexually selected characters using character mapping is that it is often difficult to determine exactly what aspects of a male trait females prefer. With reference to swordtail fishes, it is unclear whether females have specific preferences for a trait (such as the sword) not possessed by the males or whether females are attracted to any tail modifications that are indicative of male viability or fertility in general (such as relatively large, brightly coloured, healthy, and vigorous males). In other words, do swordtail females really prefer sworded males per se or are they attracted to any males capable of growing brightly coloured and exaggerated tails? Recent evidence suggests the latter.

Phylogenetic grading

A second approach to inferring evolutionary history may be referred to as “phylogenetic grading.” The approach involves making detailed comparisons among extant species with respect to a particular type of behaviour and then arraying the various forms of this behaviour from least to most complex. Assuming that complexity increases over evolutionary time, simple or more “primitive” forms of a behaviour are considered ancestral. Species that exist today with a simpler form of the behaviour are not presumed to have experienced the selection pressures that propelled the evolution of more complex forms of the behaviour in other species. For example, Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch, who decoded the “dance language” of honeybees (Apis), reportedly said:

We cannot believe that the bee dance of the European bees has come from heaven as it is and, since the Indian honeybees and the stingless bees there live in a more primitive social organization, we should expect some phylogenetically primitive stages of the bee dance.

According to this view, stingless bees (Melipona) might not even possess a dance language, since they live in small, less-organized colonies (that is, they are lower on the phylogenetic grade of social complexity than honeybees). Recent studies of stingless bees, however, indicate that successful foragers do in fact communicate distance, direction, height, and smell of food sources to their colony mates. In other words, stingless bees can do everything that the more “advanced” honeybees do—and more, because honeybees do not indicate food-source height. Stingless bees have a communication system that is different from, but certainly not more primitive than, the communication system of honeybees.

The phylogenetic grade approach probably appeals to investigators because of the human tendency to admire the technological advances that have occurred in human societies. So-called advanced species with complex behaviours and social structures, however, are really no better adapted than so-called primitive species, and complexity is no guarantee of long-term success. Many species with complex behaviours are extinct (such as the dinosaurs), and in some extant phylogenetic groups (such as bowerbirds [family Ptilonorhynchidae]) there are species living today whose ancestors probably engaged in much more complex bower-building activities. In other words, living species with simple behaviour patterns are sometimes descendant from ancestral species with more complex behaviours, and vice versa. Consequently, it is inappropriate to view the behaviour of living species as the rungs of a ladder of complexity progressing back to simpler ancestral behaviours. Natural selection does not inexorably build complexity but rather promotes only the complexity necessary at any given time for survival and reproductive success.

Artificial selection

A wholly different approach to reconstructing the evolution of certain behaviours involves the attempt to “re-create” history by imposing an artificial selection regime on a species that is closely related to the one showing the behaviour of interest. The selection that is imposed is designed to mimic what might have occurred in a past environment of the species exhibiting the focal behaviour. For instance, to show how dogs may have acquired their domesticated traits, Russian geneticist Dimitry Belyaev imposed artificial selection on a closely related but undomesticated species, the silver fox, a colour morph of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). After capturing a group of wild foxes, he bred them in captivity. Once a month, starting when each pup was one month old, he offered food and tried to approach and pet it. When the foxes were seven to eight months old, only those that were enthusiastic about human contact were selected as breeding stock. After 40 years of this strong and consistent artificial selection for tameness, the farmed foxes behaved like house dogs, whimpering to attract attention, wagging their tails, licking handlers, and sitting in their handlers' laps. Interestingly, in addition to behavioral changes there were changes in morphology as well, including floppy ears, shortened legs and tails, tails curved upward, underbites and overbites, and novel coat patterns and colours.

Belyaev's analyses indicated that the ontogeny of the farmed foxes' social behaviour had changed: their eyes opened earlier and their fear response was initiated later, widening the window of time for social bonding. As the behaviour of the foxes evolved, changes took place in the mechanisms that regulated development, leading to shifts in the rates and timing of developmental processes such as socialization. Floppy ears, recurved tails, and bizarre colours probably are genetically correlated traits, meaning that their development is affected by the same genes that result in tameness. It is possible that the fox experiment re-created the process by which wolves (Canis lupus) became domesticated into house dogs 10,000–15,000 years ago. Moreover, the striking similarities of many of the behaviours and physical attributes of domesticated swine (Sus domesticus), horses (Equus caballus), cows (Bos taurus), and cats (Felis catus) to those of the foxes suggest that the behaviour of all those animals followed a similar evolutionary trajectory. Domestication of those animals was the result of selection imposed by humans for tameness.

The comparative approach

The fourth approach to reconstructing the history of a behaviour involves studying its fitness consequences today. If a behaviour currently provides higher fitness than its alternatives, it is inferred that natural selection acting in similar antecedent environments caused its initial spread. This approach assumes that present selective pressures are similar to those that operated in the past. This assumption is reasonable because the physical and biotic environments of many organisms have remained similar for hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of years. Even if certain aspects of the environment of a species have changed recently, other aspects may have remained the same. For this approach to succeed, the only environmental aspects that matter are those to which the focal behaviour is a response.

For example, the European (or common) starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and the English (or house) sparrow (Passer domesticus) were imported to the United States during the second half of the 19th century. Certain aspects of their new environment—such as types of food and predator species—were different, whereas other environmental aspects—such as nesting sites and the birds' social environment—did not change (the latter is a product of the birds' tendencies to group with members of the same species). As a result, the birds' reproductive and communicative behaviours closely resemble those of starlings and sparrows living in Europe today. Therefore, studies of current fitness in the new, nonnative environment would still be relevant to reconstructing the history of starling and sparrow nesting and social behaviours (such as mate choice and parental care) although perhaps not relevant for inferring the history of the birds' foraging or antipredator behaviours.

The current fitness approach has been used to reconstruct the history of human social behaviours. This is largely because the other three approaches are precluded. Societies of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and gorillas (Gorilla gorilla), the closest phylogenetic relatives to human beings (Homo sapiens sapiens) are so different from human societies that character mapping of behaviours is of limited usefulness, and selection experiments on humans are considered unethical. There exist, however, alternative forms of many human social behaviours, and these alternative forms may well give rise to fitness differences among individuals. Although there are vast differences between certain aspects of today's environments and those experienced by humanity's ancestors (as a result of technological advances), other aspects have changed very little (such as the dangers of parasites and infectious diseases, the desirability of attracting a mate, family-based social units, parental behaviours, nepotism, and reciprocity). Therefore, the approach of studying current fitness consequences is suitable for humans.

The match between ancestral and modern environments can sometimes be improved by studying the behaviour of humans living in societies without advanced technologies. These so-called traditional societies may offer a window into the evolutionary past since it is almost certain that ancestral Homo sapiens were hunters and gatherers. Thus, by examining modern hunting and gathering societies, insights can be gained into the conditions confronted by ancestral humans and the behaviour patterns they used to survive and reproduce. Such analyses have revealed many differences in the behaviours of humans living in various traditional societies, as well as those living in highly technological societies, suggesting that humans have evolved capacities to adjust behaviour in different environments to benefit themselves and their kin. At the same time, commonalities have emerged both within and between traditional and highly technological societies. These commonalities occur in behaviours (such as mate choice and patterns of nepotism and reciprocity) and in parental roles. For example, greater parental solicitude toward one's own offspring than toward unrelated children, along with the avoidance of incest, is universal. A sexual division of labour in foraging also appears to be common. In many societies, women gather vegetable foods and men hunt; however, in a few other societies labour is shared or roles are reversed. Sexual differences in mate-choice criteria are also universally widespread. Women of most societies prefer older, wealthy men of high social status, whereas men in most societies prefer younger, healthy, fecund women. The implication of these commonalities is that these similarities and differences are evolutionarily ancient.

Comparative studies can yield hypotheses about the origins of behaviours that can sometimes be tested indirectly with fossil evidence. For example, if a certain behaviour is associated with a particular morphological structure, such as an elongated tail, the appearance in the fossil record of that structure confirms the time of origin of the associated behaviour. In this manner, the approach used to develop the hypothesis regarding the evolutionary history of that behaviour is also validated.

In conclusion, there are several different ways to tackle the knotty problem of evolutionary history, but none is completely satisfying. Indeed, it seems impossible to achieve complete certainty about a behaviour's origin and evolutionary trajectory. Without rock-solid fossil evidence, the best attempts to reconstruct behavioral evolution will yield valid references, but they will not produce strong conclusions.

Thomas D. Seeley

Paul W. Sherman

Additional Reading

John Alcock, Animal Behavior, 9th ed. (2009); Helena Cronin, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today (1991); Paul W. Sherman and John Alcock (eds.), Exploring Animal Behavior: Readings from American Scientist, 4th ed. (2005); and Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975, reissued 2000), are works that describe the basic principles in the study of animal behaviour. Thomas J. Carew, Behavioral Neurobiology (2000); Randy J. Nelson, An Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology, 3rd ed. (2005); Sara J. Shettleworth, Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior (1998); and Peter Simmons and David Young, Nerve Cells and Animal Behaviour, 2nd ed. (1999), focus on the mechanisms and the development of behaviour.

The function and evolutionary history of behaviour are discussed in T.H. Clutton-Brock, The Evolution of Parental Care (1991); Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, Sex, Evolution, and Behavior, 2nd ed. (1983); J.R. Krebs and N.B. Davies, An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology, 3rd ed. (1993); and George C. Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966, reissued 1996). The principles of evolution through natural selection and the biological basis of various human behaviours are described in Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, new ed. (1989, reissued 2006), and The Extended Phenotype, rev. ed. (1999); and Robert Wright, The Moral Animal (1994, reissued 2004).

Modern perspectives on animal communication, thought, and emotion are considered in Donald R. Griffin, Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (2001); Marc D. Hauser, Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think (2000); and Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (1997).

Thomas D. Seeley

Paul W. Sherman

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