Spotlight on Science: Ethology

Ethology is a science that you might not have heard much about before. It is the study of animal behaviour, the joining patch between Zoo and Psych that bridges the divide between the attitude of “no seriously we people are super complex look at our social structure” and “humans are really just bald apes, why couldn’t we be more like the bonobos”.

As with many fields of biology, there are different ends of Ethology (neuroscience and evolution also come into the mix) and, to my mind, it will always be associated with an afternoon spent learning that when seagulls look aggressive, they are being aggressive.

Black-backed gulls in a feeding frenzy. Source:
Black-backed gulls in a feeding frenzy. Source:

It’s pretty cool though, because ethology gives us insights into all of those fields mentioned above, as well as telling us a bunch about the world around us. It’s often seen in the context of natural selection; indeed, there is an entire essay by Dobzhansky about how “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (1). Ethology is no exception to this, and unravelling why animals might have needed to do certain things in the past can give us clues regarding environments we did not see or potentially did not record, as well as past social formations. Applied ethology allows us to improve conservation methods, while social ethology can teach us about ourselves.

Darwin has been called the first ethologist, due to his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The first few ethologists looked at natural or instinctive behaviours, and amassed a large base of knowledge that the field has since been built on, some of which I think was taught back in year 13 biology.

Silver fox. Source:
Silver fox

Of course, the well-publicised parts of ethology are about either it’s application to humans (2-4), or sex, or sometimes both.

Also, it’s helping us get pet foxes (2,3).

And I am pretty excited for when I can get one of those.

ETHOLOGY: Social groups, conservation, and domesticated everything.

(1) Dobzhansky, Theodosius (1973) Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. The American Biology Teacher (35:125-129) Link.

(2) Weiner P and Wilkinson S (2011) Deciphering the genetic basis of animal domestication. Proc R Soc B 278 (1722) :3161-3179

(3) Kukekova AV, Trut LN, Chase K, Kharlamova AV, Johnson JL, Temnykh SV, Oskina IN, Gulevich RG, Vladimirova AV, Klebanov S, Shepeleva DV, Shikhevich SG, Acland GM, Lark KG. (2011) Mapping loci for fox domestication: deconstruction/reconstruction of a behavioral phenotype.Behavior Genetics. 41:593–606

(4) Ardrey, Robert (1970). The Social Contract: A Personal Inquiry into the Evolutionary Sources of Order and Disorder.

2 thoughts on “Spotlight on Science: Ethology

  1. Ria Pi March 3, 2013 / 10:18 am

    Yeah! I love articles about ethology, which I think you synthesized rather well.

    • sophia March 3, 2013 / 4:46 pm

      Thanks! I feel it is an oft-overlooked science because it can lack that ~human touch~. Glad you enjoyed it!

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