What is Animal Behavior? - Types & Analysis

Instructor: Meredith Mikell
Understanding how and why members of the animal kingdom behave in certain ways is a key part of studying their biology. In this lesson, we will define animal behavior, explore the key concepts in the study of animal behavior, and finish with a brief quiz.

Defining Animal Behavior

All animals, including humans, exhibit some very distinct - and often amusing - behaviors. In studying animals, we often attribute defining distinctions between them based upon their behaviors, just as much or even more so than their anatomy. The study of animal behavior is known as ethology, which particularly emphasizes the natural environment that influences the behaviors.

Think of the behavioral differences between a domestic dog and a wolf - though they are very closely related, their common behaviors are divided by human influence. Understanding the dynamics of animal behavior has important implications for the fields of evolutionary biology, farming and agriculture, animal husbandry, ecology, and psychology.

What Influences Behavior

It may seem that what drives animal behavior ultimately boils down to a pretty simple factor: survival. It seems obvious that the role of survivorship is pretty powerful. Nature tends to reward the behaviors that best ensure that an individual escapes predators or finds food. 'Survival of the fittest,' right? This is true to an extent, but there is an even more powerful influence: the drive to reproduce.

In evolutionary terms, living a long life only matters in so far as the individual reproduces and passes along the genes that code for those positive physical traits or behaviors. Really, we should be saying, 'Reproduction of the fittest.' So procuring reproductive success is a pretty powerful force in nature, and is the impetus for behaviors that ensure such success.

For example, territoriality occurs when individuals (usually males) establish dominance over a particular region and, oftentimes, the females of that region. They defend their territories from other males, violently when necessary, to ensure that they have exclusive access to resources and mating rights. A common example of this is male bighorn sheep clashing heads in battle over harems of females.

Bighorn sheep establish territories for mating and foraging rights.
bighorn sheep

Other animal species engage in some pretty entertaining mating behaviors in which males attempt to attract females. Bird species, like peacocks and birds of paradise, are known for their incredible displays!

A Bird of Paradise shows off his bright color display to a female as a mating behavior.
bird of paradise

Energy Balancing Act

It takes energy to achieve reproductive and survival success. Animals replace that energy by consuming and metabolizing food, the energy from which is measured in calories. But, then again, catching and consuming food also takes energy. If obtaining food requires more metabolic energy than the food replaces in calories, then the animal's food-finding behavior is not efficient, and the animal will not thrive.

To avoid this problem, animals must ensure that their food-finding behaviors achieve what is known as optimal foraging, in which they strike a perfect balance of calories in versus calories out. How this balance is struck depends on a variety of factors, including the animal's size and environment. Large mammals, for example, tend to have slower metabolisms than smaller mammals, but also have more body mass to feed.

A giraffe foraging.

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