What is Ethology?

Ethology is the study of animal behaviour. It is a discipline with long traditions and one of few non-medicine biological disciplines that have generated Nobel prizes.

Red deer in a feeding experiment at Tovetorp

The behaviour of animals is fundamental to whether individuals will survive and reproduce and studying their behaviour is therefore essential to fully understand evolution.

Ethology deals with two types of causal explanations to behaviour; one that deals with motivational mechanisms and the experience of animals as causing the behaviour (proximate explanations) and one that deals with selection pressures and phylogenetic factors that cause the evolution of behaviour (ultimate explanations).

Wolf pups at Tovetorp research station

In ethology, we are interested in and study both the proximate and the ultimate levels of animal behaviour. These two levels complement each other and help us achieve a more complete understanding of animal behaviour and evolution. Having both levels in perspective also help us ask the right kind of questions taking into account both an evolutionary and a more mechanistic approach.

Ethology is an exceptionally broad subject and includes the study of how:

  • Animals communicate with each other
  • Animals compete and cooperate during feeding and mating
  • Animals forage and defend themselves when attacked
  • Animals migrate and live in different environments
  • Brain anatomy affects animal behaviour
  • Animals learn and remember
  • Genes affect behaviour
  • Animals differ in their personality and social structures
  • Animals pair and reproduce.
Blue tit in a learning experiment

Ethology is not only important as an academic science, but also has important implications in animal welfare. For example, understanding animal behaviour is essential in animal parks, animal husbandry, and when using animals in scientific research. Understanding animal behaviour is also essential in all other activities where we interact with living animals, as in the use of domestic animals, when hunting and fishing, in medical science using animals, when training animals, and also for veterinarians and in animal conservation.

Studies on human behaviour are of course also included in ethology, and the application of such knowledge provides a natural scientific perspective and understanding of human behaviour.