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Understanding Animal Behaviour

Animal behaviour is a phrase that is used to describe the ways in which animals interact with each other, and with the physical environment surrounding them.

We know that an animal’s unique physiology and anatomy impact behaviour, and that external stimuli (such as threats from other animals or weather changes) can immediately change the way in which animals behave and react to the world around them.

Scientists have recently estimated that there are approximately 8.7 million species on Earth. They believe that 1-2 million of those species are animals.

Given the vast array of animals inhabiting our planet, it stands to reason that there is significant diversity in animal behaviour across both different species and environments. Here’s everything you need to know about the types of animal behaviour, and why understanding animal behaviour is so important:

What is Animal Behaviour?

Animal behaviour is defined as 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 a cognitive understanding of its environment. Animal behaviour is an incredibly diverse field and covers so many distinct elements.

The study of animals and animal behaviour is an ancient practice that came to the fore with Darwin and his theories and continues to this day.

Researchers will use three different methods to study animal behaviour. These are observational research, experimental research, and comparative research.

When animal behaviourists are undertaking observational research, this means that they simply observe the animals without manipulating either the animals or the environment that they inhabit. Undertaking experimental research means that a variable can be manipulated, and then the effects of this manipulation on the animal’s behaviour can be observed and assessed. This kind of research should only be attempted if there is no risk of harm or distress to the animal. Finally, comparative research looks at more than one different type of animal species and then examines their similarities and differences. This approach is often used to assess the evolution of those animals’ behaviour.

The needs of the animal should always come first when assessing animal behaviour or conducting any kind of animal research. Ethical animal use is the first rule of studying animal behaviour. This is not only for the good of the animal but also to ensure that proper and robust results are obtained from your research.

Students of animal behaviour are asked to abide by the ‘Three Rs’ when conducting any kind of research into animal behaviour. These are replacement, reduction, and refinement.

Replacement describes using computer technology rather than direct animal research where possible. Reduction describes reducing the number of animals you use in your studies. And refinement describes improving procedures and techniques to ensure that all animals are treated ethically.

Why Is Understanding Animal Behaviour Important?

There are very many reasons why understanding animal behaviour is so important. Firstly, understanding animal behaviour equips you with the knowledge you’ll need to promote animal welfare.

The understanding of animal behaviour also has a significant impact on global conservation efforts, as well as on veterinary medicine. Another reason why the study of animal behaviour is so important is that we, human beings, are animals too. Understanding how and why our animal friends act in the way they do will help us to better understand our own behaviour.

Within the field of conservation management, for example, a separate field called conservation behaviour has been established. This is a separate field of study designed to analyse animal behaviour and assess the impact of this within the conservation arena. When we study animal behaviour, we see the impact that their environment has on the animals, and how they interact with their surroundings. With this firm empirical evidence, conservationists are better equipped to promote the conservation of those environments.

Understanding animal behaviour is key to biodiversity conservation. By understanding why animals do what they do, we can better protect them, and promote their cause to the general public. If the public is on board, this significantly improves the chances of conservation success. A recent example of this is the eastern chipmunk. A recent study found that chipmunks have a personality, and this personality is directly linked to their stress levels and reproductive success. By humanising chipmunks in this way. This study means the general public will be better inclined to protect their environment.

Another example of this on a global scale is the giant panda and its use as the ‘mascot’ for the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). By using the giant panda on their logo in this way, not only has the WWF raised vital awareness of this species, but they have also gained financial and conservational support which means the giant panda is no longer endangered. By sharing the personality and behaviour of the giant panda, WWF has generated a clear societal good.

dog drooling every time it is exposed to food

Types of Animal Behaviour

There are many different types of animal behaviour, but the four main and most frequently studied types are instinct, imprinting, conditioning and imitation. These types of animal behaviour can be divided into two categories: innate and learned. Innate behaviours are uncontrolled and automatic, whilst learned behaviours must be taught, as the name suggests. A lion eating meat is an innate behaviour, for example, whilst hunting for that meat is learned.

Here we will describe how each of these types of behaviour is demonstrated:

  • Instinct. Instinct behaviours are a kind of innate behaviour. Animals do not have to learn or practise these skills. For a behaviour to be instinctual, the animal should demonstrate it the first time, and every time, it is exposed to the correct stimulus. Some examples of instinctive behaviour include a dog drooling every time it is exposed to food, or a mother instinctively responding to a baby’s cry.
  • Imprinting. Imprinting is a kind of learned behaviour in which a specific but simple type of learning occurs at a specific life stage in an animal’s development. Imprinting most frequently occurs in animals at birth. A key example of this that occurs in many species is that shortly after birth, a baby animal will recognise or mark its mother. In geese, sexual imprinting occurs. This is where a young goose imprints on its future mating partner shortly after birth.
  • Conditioning. Conditioning is the process of learning behaviour. This behaviour can be learnt from other animals (such as a mother to a child) or humans. Dog training is a great example of conditioning. Dogs learn new behaviours by associating the positive behaviour they demonstrate with either a reward or a punishment. A dog may be given a treat every time it sits down, for example.
  • Imitation. Imitation can be described as the copying of behaviour: animals can either imitate animals of their species or other animals. One example of imitation is that chimpanzees can use sticks as spears to grab food. One chimpanzee may see another performing this action and then mimic that behaviour.

Animal Communication

Studying animal communication gives us vital insight into the inner world of animals. Each animal communicates differently, and they use their communication to perform vital functions. These can include helping animals to find mates, to establish dominance within their communities, to coordinate their group behaviour, defend their territory, and better care for their young.

Whilst not all animals have a language in the same way as humans, they can communicate in different ways. The main forms of animal communication are visual communication, auditory communication and chemical communication.

Visual communication involves how animals gesture and posture with each other. Facial expressions, camouflaging, and body movements are all forms of visual communication. The most common example of visual communication in animals is the facial expressions shown by young chimpanzees: they will grin as a dominant male approaches them to demonstrate that they accept the other male’s dominance. Another examples is the way in which some animals will make themselves look much bigger when they are being attacked, or when they perceive that they may be attacked by other animals, such as the pufferfish. And from a sexual communication point of view, there is no better example than the peacock. The male peacock will display every feather in his plumage and then perform an elaborate dance (a behaviour that animal behaviourists refer to as “peacocking”) to attract a mate.

Male peacock, peacocking

Auditory communication involves the sounds that animals make to communicate with each other. This is probably the first kind of communication that comes to mind when you think of animal communication. Birds chirping is a key example of this, but lions growling at hunters or dogs barking when someone knocks on the front door are also good examples.

Chemical communication is a specific type of communication that involves pheromones and scent marking. Pheromones are the chemical substance produced and released by animals that affect the behaviour or psychology of other animals of their own species. There are alarm pheromones, sex pheromones and primer pheromones. These are often released in urine: dogs urinating on lamp posts as they walk is a prime example of this.

Tips For Observing and Interacting With Animals

The study of animal behaviour is a complex and difficult endeavour that requires a scientific level of observation and documentation. Often, we will be observing behaviours that are very distinct from our own but it is important to remain consistent and objective. This can be difficult, because it is easy to view the animals you are observing in an anthropomorphic light, projecting human behaviours onto them. At the other end of the scale, you may assume the animal possesses no human features. Both approaches would be incorrect.

To interact and observe animals successfully as an animal behaviourist, you will need to be consistent in your interactions with the animals and how these are documented, be open-minded about the type of behaviours you may observe, and be careful not to make assumptions that are not grounded in fact.

Some top tips for interacting with animals safely and respectfully include treating those animals with respect. The health and well-being of the animals should be your primary concern. If anything you are doing seems to cause distress to the animal then you should stop that behaviour immediately.

Building a relationship with the animal is often key to positive interaction. Build up trust, and repeat the same gentle behaviours over and over until a level of familiarity is achieved. Finally, never disturb animals when they are eating and drinking and if you want them to interact with you then be patient and wait for them to come to you: that is when they are most comfortable with your presence.


The importance of understanding animal behaviour should not be underestimated. Understanding animal behaviour plays a vital role in helping us to understand our own behaviour, evolution, and the conservation of the world around us. What’s more, the better we understand the behaviour of animals, the better our understanding of those animals will be. This applies not only to domestic species but to all animals, whether we have the opportunity to interact with them or not.

Did you know that a flamingo’s head has to be upside down when it is eating? Or that when a female ferret is in heat, it has to find a mate or it will die? When you understand why animals behave in these ways, the biological force that is driving their behaviours, it is much easier to understand those behaviours themselves.

Knowledge is power, and the greater your knowledge of animals, the better your relationship with those animals will be. For this reason, you are encouraged to continue learning about animal behaviour and observing your animal friends. Take time out not only to contemplate animal behaviour and understand animal behaviour but to dig deeper into how and why the animals around you are trying to communicate with you.

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