How to Observe, Measure & Describe Animal Behavior

Instructor: Meredith Mikell
The study of animal behavior is a complex and often tricky endeavor. In this lesson, we will explore the best methods of observing, measuring, and describing animal behavior.

Watching & Learning

Animals are fascinating, especially when you recognize that humans are included in the category of animals. When we interact with other animals, we can observe behaviors that are very distinct from our own, and also behaviors that are very akin to our own. Scientists must be very consistent and objective in their observations. This poses a challenge at times, as it is often easy to view the subjects in an anthropomorphic light, projecting human behaviors and feelings on the subjects. A counteractive extreme is to assume that other animals do NOT possess any human-like behaviors and feelings. In both cases, the observer could ignore or invalidate relevant behaviors that shed light on the true nature of the subject. To be a successful animal behaviorist, a researcher who studies animal behavior, one must be conscientious about assumptions, research previous work, be consistent in documentation, and be open-minded about what they observe.

Animal behaviorists must resist the urge to presume human emotions and behaviors in animal subjects.

Knowing Your Subject

It is always best to research the subject animal as much as possible before making observations. Animal behaviorists work to develop effective ethograms, collections of animal behaviors cataloged by species. These can be important reference points so that researchers can benefit from the wisdom of their peers in the field. Researching the subject prior to observation can be very helpful, provided that the researcher is careful about developing assumptions.


Some people observe a particular animal's behavior out of sheer curiosity. They know nothing about that animal starting out. Others decide to study an animal because they already have an educated idea, or hypothesis, about how that animal behaves. Both are excellent starting points for observing animals, although the latter can often come with some preconceived assumptions. Starting with a hypothesis is important to the process of science; after all, how could we advance our understanding of a species without developing testable ideas about them? The important thing is not to let a hypothesis cloud observation with what you want to see an animal do, rather than what it actually is doing.

A powerful example of this is how the scientific community used to regard other great apes. Scientists assumed that there is a strict and solid line between humans and other animals, that only humans used tools, engaged in language, and had culture. Famous primatologist Jane Goodall threw these assumptions to the wind in her revolutionary observations of chimpanzees. She discovered that they use tools, are capable of language, and engage in activities that we would recognize as culture by human standards.

Jane Goodall was the first researcher to observed tool use in primates.
bonobo tool

Collecting Data

When observing animal subjects, safety is the first concern, whether that means staying behind a protective barrier or staying at a considerable distance from the subjects. For most types of observations, interaction with the subjects should be minimal to none, as such interactions can change the subjects' natural behaviors, nullifying the data. There can be exceptions to this rule if the researcher is testing a hypothesis that pertains to how the subject interacts with other animals. Finally, researchers must be patient! Data collection has the potential to be long and monotonous. Jane Goodall spent many hours, days, weeks, and months waiting for families of chimpanzees to enter her view of observation.

Primatologist Jane Goodall revolutionized our understanding of chimpanzees with her behavioral observations.
jane goodall

For the information collected to be useful, both to the individual doing the research and to the larger scientific community, it must be consistently documented. Ethograms specify two primary types of behavior categories:

1. Events: short-term behaviors that can be measured on time intervals. For example, chimpanzees generating a vocalization several times over the course of an hour.

2. States: long-term behaviors that are measured as a function of duration. For example, female chimpanzees are observed to spend eight hours per day sleeping.

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