Animal Behavior

Animal Behavior

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

The concept of animal behavior refers to everything that includes how animals respond to their environment and other organisms.

What Is Animal Behavior?

The study of animal behavior refers to observing and understanding how animals live, behave, survive and reproduce in their natural habitat. Developed from Ethology, the focus of this field is primarily on evolutionary adaptivity. It may also involve studying the responses and behaviors of animals to specific stimuli or analyzing trained reactions in controlled settings. According to researchers, “Animal behavior is the study of how animals move in their environment, how they interact socially, how they learn about their environment, and how an animal might achieve cognitive understanding of its environment.” The concept typically involves all actions, movements and behaviors that animals display and evaluating their psychological underpinnings.

Behavior of all organisms is an outcome of motor & computational activity of certain circuits which is associated with various cognitive activities like decision-making, memory, learning etc. Hence, studying the behavior of animals is a crucial aspect of psychology which enables us to understand how they have evolved, how they communicate with one another, interact with other species and the environment. Understanding their behavior enables researchers to better understand human behavior, a field of study identified as comparative psychology. “An important element of behavioral research with nonhuman animals is that insights are drawn from it about human behavior, what is called here the human side of animal behavior,” explains a 2001 study 1 .

The study of behavior in animals also plays an important role in the conservation of species. It facilitates conservation efforts and successful breeding of endangered species in captivity by gaining a better understanding about their mating rituals and habits, parent-child interactions and unique habitat requirements. It also enables researchers to understand the positive and negative impact created by humans on wild populations.

Understanding Animal Behavior

Animals are very different from each other regarding their behavior. There are two types of behaviors observed in animals- the ones they are born with, and the others they learn during their lifetime. Animal behaviors can be characterized by how animals communicate with other species members, with the physical environment, and with other organisms. It is about how animals interact socially, how they learn about their environment, how they move in their environment. It is also about how the animals achieve a cognitive understanding 2 of their environment. It can be defined as the change of activity of an organism of the animals. The organism’s activity changes in response to a stimulus 3 . A stimulus is considered a cue or combination of cues in the environment that can produce behavioral reactions. The activities, underlying mental processes, their movements – everything that animals do are referred to by the behavior. The objective and scientific study of animal behavior is known as Ethology 4. It is closely related to cognitive functions of the brain, such as memory, learning, and decision-making. Cognitive psychology proposes another way to study behavior. It is considered one of the most exciting and dynamic areas of science.

Read More About Cognitive Dissonance Here

History Of Animal Behavior

The origin of scientific study came from the European thinkers of the 17th-19th centuries, such as Charles Darwin 5 , John Ray, and Charles LeRoy. The complexity and purposefulness of the actions of animals are appreciated by these naturalists. These three suggested that the understanding of animal behavior requires long-term observations 6 . Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species (1859) 7 played a pivotal role in this study. He devoted a whole chapter named Instinct in his book. In this chapter, he raised the concern that anatomical behavioral traits can develop as a result of natural selection. According to Darwin 8 , animal behaviors are considered adaptations. It helps animals to reproduce and survive. Darwin’s achievement explained that adaptation is the result of the basic characteristics of living organisms, such as inheritance, differential reproduction, and variation.

Causes Behind Animal Behavior

The study of behavior is about understanding the physiology and anatomy of animals. It unfolds how physiology and anatomy are integrated with behavior. Animal behavior is caused by both external and internal stimuli. The external stimuli such as threats from other animals, weather conditions, sounds, smells, and internal information such as hunger, fear, anger are responsible for prompting behavior. Studies 9 have shown that genes and the environment hugely contribute to shaping behavior. The animals’ flexibility with the environment provides them the opportunity to adjust to the changes. Genes detain the evolutionary processes to select the behavior.

The social behavior of animals can be understood by differentiating between the proximate and ultimate causes of behavior. Proximate causes refer to how the behavior arises in animals. Ultimate causes refer to the functions and evolutionary history of behavior.

1. Proximate Cause

It contains developmental, structural, psychological, physiological, hereditary, and cognitive aspects of behavior. The mechanisms that are directly underlying the behavior are known as proximate causes 10 . For example, when an animal gets separated from its herd, the situation may trigger the behavior associated with fear reactions. It makes the animal behave in a way that can help it to reunite with the herd. The separation triggers the underlying hormonal response, and is considered the proximate cause of the behavior.

2. Ultimate Cause

The ultimate cause includes the historical or evolutionary origin of the behavior. The selective process that shaped the past and present functions is also the ultimate cause of the behavior. For example, when an isolated herd animal develops a better defense against the predators, it increases the survival of the individual within the group. The behavior that increases the tendency to reunite with the group is known as the ultimate cause.

How Animal Behavior Develop?

Animal behavior largely depends on animal genes. But genes are not the only driver of behavior. However, the development involves many factors. The life of animals undergoes a series of constant and permanent changes. These changes are the result of the communication between genotype, phenotype 11 , and environment. The genetic characteristics of a living organism, the genes in a DNA responsible for creating a specific trait, are known as the genotype. The physical characteristics of a living organism are called the phenotype. These factors are responsible for modifying and shaping individual behavior.

The natural development of the behavior requires certain conditions. A series of internal and external mechanisms monitor the speed of development. The development of behavior in animals requires certain stimuli even in its embryonic phase. After completing the initial stages of development, the foundation of behavior starts to form. The organism begins to enter different phases of life, such as maturation. It is the psychological changes in the process of development. This specific phase of development highly affects animal behavior.

Types Of Animal Behavior

The study of animal behavior is considered to be a broad field. The scientific study is also known as Ethology. It includes both innate and learned behavior along with abnormal behavior. Most of the behaviors can be observed in all animal groups, while certain behaviors may be present in only specific individuals depending on the different situation or locations. The behavior of animals provides insight into their mental states.

1. Innate Behavior

Innate behavior refers to a behavior that is genetically hardwired in a living organism. An organism born with this inherited behavior. It doesn’t have to be learned. This kind of behavior is very predictable. Innate behavior patterns can be observed for the first time when an animal reacts to a particular internal or external stimulus. The animals with a short life span mostly have innate behavior. In the case of insects, they don’t learn from their parents as they are either dead or have moved away from the larva. That’s why insects behave innately with their environment. Animals learn to react instantly because of innate behavior. For example, when a female bird lays eggs, the male one builds an elaborate nest. Moths fly toward the light, but a cockroach runs away from it.

Three types of innate behavior can be observed in animals that include:

A. Instinctual Behavior

Instinctual behavior 12 is characterized by its complex pattern. This behavior forms within an animal when it starts to recognize a stimulus. Animals are compelled to engage in instinctual behavior. This process continues until the animal performs all parts of the behavior. This behavior may take a long period to form completely. For example, spiders spin a web precisely and correctly every time on the first try though spinning a web is a complex job.

B. Reflexes

Reflexes 13 are the simplest form of innate behavior. It can be characterized by a rapid, automatic, and involuntary response to the stimulus. Mostly it doesn’t contain a message from the brain. A reflex message transmits between a sense organ to the spinal cord and the back of a muscle through a nerve. This process doesn’t involve the brain. One can be aware of this only after it has happened. The body responds automatically to this. The behavior doesn’t form because of any conscious thinking. For example, sneezing, jerking the hand immediately after touching anything too hot or cold, yawning, kicking after getting a tap on the kneecap with a rubber hammer, or a baby sucking at anything that touches the roof of its mouth.

C. Kinesis and Taxis

Kinesis and taxis 14 are the two forms of movement behavior. Kinesis refers to an innate behavior in which an organism changes the movement in response to a stimulus. The movement happens in a non-directional and random way. For example, an animal slows down or increases its speed of moving in response to the high temperature or a tasty food source. Taxis can be characterized by a movement towards or away from a cue. The movement may depend on the positive or negative source of the stimulus. The movement that occurs in response to light is known as phototaxis. A movement that happens in response to a chemical signal is known as chemotaxis. The movement that occurs in response to gravity is called geotaxis. For example, a woodlouse moves slower or faster in response to the temperature as it prefers a moist environment to live in.

2. Learned Behavior

This kind of behavior is considered to be the result of experience and practice. It develops during an animal’s lifetime. The learned behavior 15 may contain some innate components, but it allows the animal to adapt to the environmental changes. This behavior generally contrasts with the innate one as it is modified by previous experiences. Wild animals adapt learned behaviors to learn specific ways to survive and domestic animals adapt learned behaviors for training. It helps the animals to get comfortable with new situations and problems. Learned behavior can be observed mostly in fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Learned behavior is essential for animals with a long life span. For example, a dog learns to sit when instructed, or a dog moves after hearing the sound of a metal bowl as it signals to the food being served.

Animals may learn behavior in different types of ways. The most common learned behavior of animals include:

A. Imprinting

Imprinting 16 is a kind of learned behavior. It occurs when an animal recognizes a social attachment. Adult animals have more experience in escaping, finding food, getting along with the environment, but the young ones don’t. The concept of imprinting is developed by Australian Naturalist Konrad Lorenz 17 . He experimented with geese and discovered that geese follow the first moving object they notice after hatching just like their mothers. Imprinting occurs during a specific stage of life, during the development of the animal. For example, when a baby animal accepts a person or an environment.

B. Trial and Error

Trial and error 18 refer to the specific skills that an individual learns through trial and error. Trial and error learning can be characterized by behaviors that are modified by experience. With this process, animals learn to anticipate. For example, an animal learns to eat and drink on its own, birds try to feed themselves, after pecking at many stones they finally get their food and learn to peck only at foods through trial and error.

C. Conditioning

It is considered to be the result of associate learning. Conditioning refers to a process through which animals learn new behaviors. The behavior is modified in conditioning. In this process, a particular response to a stimulus is associated with another response to a stimulus. For example, when someone puts his/her hands on the top of an aquarium, all fish swim to the top of the tank expecting food. This happens because a hand shape above them means food according to their learning. Conditioning can be divided into two forms – Classical conditioning and Operant conditioning.

i. Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov 19 experimented with classical conditioning with dogs. In this experiment, he tried to condition the dogs to drool which is a response associated with food. Classical conditioning is characterized by a stimulus that is associated with the second one with which it had no connection previously. For example, a dog drools or salivates after seeing some food or smelling some food.

ii. Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning 20 is a little different as it is not associated with an existing stimulus-response pair. It refers to the learning method that is connected with a reward or punishment for the behavior. Operant conditioning contributes hugely to everyday learning. In this process, an association between the behavior and the behavioral consequence is being created. The consequences can be both positive or negative. For example, when rats press a lever after observing the green light in a lab experiment, they are rewarded with a plate of food.

Abnormality In Animal Behavior

“Abnormal behaviour is defined as an untypical reaction to a particular combination of motivational factors and stimuli,” explains a study 21 . Most of such behavior is considered as a coping mechanism and response to stress. It is essential to observe the behavioral patterns of animals to identify their abnormality. Sometimes, the instances of animal behavior can be life-threatening to the animals and even to the owners. It can be dangerous for the animal’s long-term survival. Abnormal behaviors are mostly the results of sudden change of the environment’s nature, welfare needs that are not being met, and any other physical or mental trauma. Some specific abnormal behavior of animals include tail biting in pigs, sudden inappropriate aggression in dogs due to any disease or trauma it is suffering from, feather pecking in poultry, fin nipping in fish.

Extending Animal Behavior

The study of animal behavior is considered to be one of the main pillars of psychology. It sheds light on the ways animals react to their surrounding environment and to other organisms along with the reason behind their behaviors.

Animal Behavior At A Glance

  1. Animal behavior refers to observing and understanding how animals live, behave, survive and reproduce in their natural habitat.
  2. Animal behavior largely depends on animal genes.
  3. Animal behaviors can be characterized by how animals communicate with other species members, with the physical environment, and with other organisms.
  4. The social behavior of animals can be understood by differentiating between the proximate and ultimate causes of behavior.
  5. The study of animal behavior is considered to be one of the main pillars of psychology.
👇 References:
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  2. Vonk J. (2016). Advances in Animal Cognition. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(4), 27. []
  3. Couchman, J. J., Coutinho, M. V., Beran, M. J., & Smith, J. D. (2010). Beyond stimulus cues and reinforcement signals: a new approach to animal metacognition. Journal of comparative psychology (Washington, D.C. : 1983), 124(4), 356–368. []
  4. LINDAUER M. Ethology. Annu Rev Psychol. 1962;13:35-70. doi: 10.1146/ PMID: 14465390. []
  5. Burghardt GM. Darwin’s legacy to comparative psychology and ethology. Am Psychol. 2009 Feb-Mar;64(2):102-10. doi: 10.1037/a0013385. PMID: 19203142. []
  6. Thierry B. Darwin as a student of behavior. C R Biol. 2010 Feb;333(2):188-96. doi: 10.1016/j.crvi.2009.12.007. Epub 2010 Feb 11. PMID: 20338536. []
  7. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Br Foreign Med Chir Rev. 1860 Apr;25(50):367-404. PMID: 30164232; PMCID: PMC5184128. []
  8. Boakes, R. (2010). Darwin and animal behavior. Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, 454-460. []
  9. Lenroot, R. K., & Giedd, J. N. (2008). The changing impact of genes and environment on brain development during childhood and adolescence: initial findings from a neuroimaging study of pediatric twins. Development and psychopathology, 20(4), 1161–1175. []
  10. Vessey, S., & Drickamer, L. (2010). Integration of proximate and ultimate causes. Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, 180-185. []
  11. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Assessing Interactions Among Social, Behavioral, and Genetic Factors in Health; Hernandez LM, Blazer DG, editors. Genes, Behavior, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature/Nurture Debate. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006. 7, Animal Models. Available from: []
  12. Blumberg M. S. (2017). Development evolving: the origins and meanings of instinct. Wiley interdisciplinary reviews. Cognitive science, 8(1-2), 10.1002/wcs.1371. []
  13. Parker GH. TYPES OF ANIMAL REFLEXES. Science. 1940 Mar 1;91(2357):216. doi: 10.1126/science.91.2357.216. PMID: 17838330. []
  14. Braitenberg V. Taxis, kinesis and decussation. Prog Brain Res. 1965;17:210-22. doi: 10.1016/s0079-6123(08)60163-6. PMID: 5893240. []
  15. ahant Darshan Das Mahila College, Muzaffarpur | Mahant Darshan Das Mahila College, Muzaffarpur. []
  16. Reik W, Walter J. Imprinting mechanisms in mammals. Curr Opin Genet Dev. 1998 Apr;8(2):154-64. doi: 10.1016/s0959-437x(98)80136-6. PMID: 9610405. []
  17. Mobbs, E. J., Mobbs, G. A., & Mobbs, A. E. (2016). Imprinting, latchment and displacement: a mini review of early instinctual behaviour in newborn infants influencing breastfeeding success. Acta paediatrica (Oslo, Norway : 1992), 105(1), 24–30. []
  18. Redish A. D. (2016). Vicarious trial and error. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 17(3), 147–159. []
  19. Rehman I, Mahabadi N, Sanvictores T, et al. Classical Conditioning. [Updated 2020 Aug 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: []
  20. Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2003). Operant conditioning. Annual review of psychology, 54, 115–144. []
  21. Jensen P. Normal and abnormal behaviour of animals. Acta Physiol Scand Suppl. 1986;554:11-23. PMID: 3469868. []
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