Animal Behavior

Steve Nowicki, Department of Zoology
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

What themes unify animal behavior?

The major theme that unifies the study of animal behavior is an interest in how animals interact with each other and their environment, ultimately with respect to how these interactions influence an individual's survival and reproduction.

How diverse is the field of animal behavior?

The study of animal behavior is enormously diverse, largely because behavior is central to so many aspects of an animal's biology. Virtually any kind of behavior performed by an animal may be the subject of study. Some questions that have attracted considerable interest include those about how animals communicate, how they choose mates, how they find food and shelter, and how they are affected by the negative impact of human activities on the environment.

How did you and other colleagues become
interested in animal behavior?

Many scientists studying animal behavior begin with a simple interest in watching animals; others come to the study of behavior from related fields, such as ecology, evolutionary biology or comparative physiology. There are many summer research opportunities for college students or even high school students to become involved with animal behavior research in the laboratory or in the field. These programs often provide the first serious exposure to animal behavior research for many students.

Why is your field exciting?

Animal behavior is exciting for many reasons, but especially because it is such an integrative discipline. Also, it allows the researcher to work closely with animals, usually in the field, and thus to fully appreciate the intricacy of organisms.

How does the study of animal behavior help
society? Why should the public care?

Studies of animal behavior are increasingly important to society because they are crucial for understanding how to preserve species in the face of the continuing negative impact of human activities on the biosphere. Behavioral studies are central to conservation biology. Animal behavior studies have made other less direct but nonetheless important contributions to society. For example, studies of how young birds learn and develop their songs provide unique insights into the development and neural control of speech in humans.

What is a typical day like?

There is no "typical day" that would describe the activities of most scientists studying animal behavior. Schedules and activities differ as much as the kinds of animals studied and the kinds of questions asked of those animals. For example, a scientist studying the mating behavior of frogs in the field may begin the "workday" at 9:00 p.m. at night when frogs become active and not finish until 2:00-3:00 a.m. the next morning. Another scientist studying the mating behavior of birds, however, might begin the workday at 4:00 a.m. and be finished by noon. By contrast, scientists conducting their behavioral studies in the laboratory may follow a more traditional 9 to 5 workday. A scientist studying animal behavior may find himself or herself working hip deep in a swamp watching birds with binoculars one day and then dressed in a suit and tie lecturing to students the next day.

What other jobs are there in animal behavior besides those in academia or research labs?

Students of animal behavior may find rewarding careers working as curators in zoos, as consultants for business, or as analysts for conservation agencies.