Importance of Animal Behavior

Categories: AnimalBehavior

Why do animals behave the way they do? The answer to this question depends on what the behavior is. A cat chases a mouse to catch it. A spider spins its sticky web to trap insects. A mother dog nurses her puppies to feed them. All of these behaviors have the same purpose: getting or providing food. All animals need food for energy. They need energy to move around. In fact, they need energy just to stay alive. Baby animals also need energy to grow and develop.

Birds and wasps build nests to have a safe place to store their eggs and raise their young. Many other animals build nests for the same reason. Animals protect their young in other ways, as well. For example, a mother dog not only nurses her puppies. She also washes them with her tongue and protects them from strange people or other animals. All of these behaviors help the young survive and grow up to be adults.

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Rabbits run away from foxes and other predators to stay alive. Their speed is their best defense.

Lizards sun themselves on rocks to get warm because they cannot produce their own body heat. When they are warmer, they can move faster and be more alert. This helps them escape from predators, as well as find food. All of these animal behaviors are important. They help the animals get food for energy, make sure their young survive, or ensure that they survive themselves. Behaviors that help animals or their young survive increase the animals’ fitness.

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You read about fitness in the Evolution chapter. Animals with higher fitness have a better chance of passing their genes to the next generation. If genes control behaviors that increase fitness, the behaviors become more common in the species. This is called evolution by natural selection. Innate Behavior

All of the behaviors shown in the images above are ways that animals act naturally. They don’t have to learn how to behave in these ways. Cats are natural-born hunters. They don’t need to learn how to hunt. Spiders spin their complex webs without learning how to do it from other spiders. Birds and wasps know how to build nests without being taught. These behaviors are called innate. An innate behavior is any behavior that occurs naturally in all animals of a given species. An innate behavior is also called an instinct. The first time an animal performs an innate behavior, the animal does it well. The animal does not have to practice the behavior in order to get it right or become better at it. Innate behaviors are also predictable. All members of a species perform an innate behavior in the same way. From the examples described above, you can probably tell that innate behaviors usually involve important actions, like eating and caring for the young. There are many other examples of innate behaviors. For example, did you know that honeybees dance? The honeybee in Figure below has found a source of food. When the bee returns to its hive, it will do a dance, called the waggle dance. The way the bee moves during its dance tells other bees in the hive where to find the food. Honeybees can do the waggle dance without learning it from other bees, so it is an innate behavior. When this honeybee goes back to its hive, it will do a dance to tell the other bees in the hive where it found food. Learned Behavior

Just about all other human behaviors are learned. Learned behavior is behavior that occurs only after experience or practice. Learned behavior has an advantage over innate behavior. It is more flexible. Learned behavior can be changed if conditions change. For example, you probably know the route from your house to your school. Assume that you moved to a new house in a different place, so you had to take a different route to school. What if following the old route was an innate behavior? You would not be able to adapt. Fortunately, it is a learned behavior. You can learn the new route just as you learned the old one. Although most animals can learn, animals with greater intelligence are better at learning and have more learned behaviors. Humans are the most intelligent animals. They depend on learned behaviors more than any other species. Other highly intelligent species include apes, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. They include chimpanzees and gorillas.

Both are also very good at learning behaviors. You may have heard of a gorilla named Koko. The psychologist Dr. Francine Patterson raised Koko. Dr. Patterson wanted to find out if gorillas could learn human language. Starting when Koko was just one year old, Dr. Patterson taught her to use sign language. Koko learned to use and understand more than 1,000 signs. Koko showed how much gorillas can learn. See A Conversation with Koko at for additional information. Think about some of the behaviors you have learned. They might include riding a bicycle, using a computer, and playing a musical instrument or sport. You probably did not learn all of these behaviors in the same way. Perhaps you learned some behaviors on your own, just by practicing. Other behaviors you may have learned from other people. Humans and other animals can learn behaviors in several different ways. The following methods of learning will be explored below:

1. Habituation (forming a habit).
2. Observational learning.
3. Conditioning.
4. Play.
5. Insight learning.
Habituation is learning to get used to something after being exposed to it for a while. Habituation usually involves getting used to something that is annoying or frightening, but not dangerous. Habituation is one of the simplest ways of learning. It occurs in just about every species of animal. You have probably learned through habituation many times. For example, maybe you were reading a book when someone turned on a television in the same room. At first, the sound of the television may have been annoying. After awhile, you may no longer have noticed it. If so, you had become habituated to the sound. Another example of habituation is shown in Figure below. Crows and most other birds are usually afraid of people. They avoid coming close to people, or they fly away when people come near them. The crows landing on this scarecrow have gotten used to a “human” in this place. They have learned that the scarecrow poses no danger. They are no longer afraid to come close. They have become habituated to the scarecrow.

This scarecrow is no longer scary to these crows. They have become used to its being in this spot and learned that it is not dangerous. This is an example of habituation. Can you see why habituation is useful? It lets animals ignore things that will not harm them. Without habituation, animals might waste time and energy trying to escape from things that are not really dangerous. Observational Learning

Observational learning is learning by watching and copying the behavior of someone else. Human children learn many behaviors this way. When you were a young child, you may have learned how to tie your shoes by watching your dad tie his shoes. More recently, you may have learned how to dance by watching a pop star dancing on TV. Most likely you have learned how to do math problems by watching your teachers do problems on the board at school. Can you think of other behaviors you have learned by watching and copying other people? Other animals also learn through observational learning. For example, young wolves learn to be better hunters by watching and copying the skills of older wolves in their pack. Another example of observational learning is how some monkeys have learned how to wash their food. They learned by watching and copying the behavior of other monkeys. Conditioning

Conditioning is a way of learning that involves a reward or punishment. Did you ever train a dog to fetch a ball or stick by rewarding it with treats? If you did, you were using conditioning. Another example of conditioning is shown in Figure below. This lab rat has been taught to “play basketball” by being rewarded with food pellets. Conditioning also occurs in wild animals. For example, bees learn to find nectar in certain types of flowers because they have found nectar in those flowers before.

This rat has been taught to put the ball through the hoop by being rewarded with food for the behavior. This is an example of conditioning. What do you think would happen if the rat was no longer rewarded for the behavior? Humans learn behaviors through conditioning, as well. A young child might learn to put away his toys by being rewarded with a bedtime story. An older child might learn to study for tests in school by being rewarded with better grades. Can you think of behaviors you learned by being rewarded for them? Conditioning does not always involve a reward. It can involve a punishment instead. A toddler might be punished with a time-out each time he grabs a toy from his baby brother. After several time-outs, he may learn to stop taking his brother’s toys. A dog might be scolded each time she jumps up on the sofa. After repeated scolding, she may learn to stay off the sofa. A bird might become ill after eating a poisonous insect. The bird may learn from this “punishment” to avoid eating the same kind of insect in the future. Learning by Playing

Most young mammals, including humans, like to play. Play is one way they learn skills they will need as adults. Think about how kittens play. They pounce on toys and chase each other. This helps them learn how to be better predators when they are older. Big cats also play. The lion cubs in Figure below are playing and practicing their hunting skills at the same time. The dogs in Figure below are playing tug-of-war with a toy. What do you think they are learning by playing together this way? Other young animals play in different ways. For example, young deer play by running and kicking up their hooves. This helps them learn how to escape from predators. These two lion cubs are playing. They are not only having fun. They are also learning how to be better hunters. Insight Learning

Insight learning is learning from past experiences and reasoning. It usually involves coming up with new ways to solve problems. Insight learning generally happens quickly. An animal has a sudden flash of insight. Insight learning requires relatively great intelligence. Human beings use insight learning more than any other species. They have used their intelligence to solve problems ranging from inventing the wheel to flying rockets into space. Think about problems you have solved. Maybe you figured out how to solve a new type of math problem or how to get to the next level of a video game. If you relied on your past experiences and reasoning to do it, then you were using insight learning. One type of insight learning is making tools to solve problems. Scientists used to think that humans were the only animals intelligent enough to make tools. In fact, tool-making was believed to set humans apart from all other animals. In 1960, primate expert Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees also make tools.

She saw a chimpanzee strip leaves from a twig. Then he poked the twig into a hole in a termite mound. After termites climbed onto the twig, he pulled the twig out of the hole and ate the insects clinging to it. The chimpanzee had made a tool to “fish” for termites. He had used insight to solve a problem. Since then, chimpanzees have been seen making several different types of tools. For example, they sharpen sticks and use them as spears for hunting. They use stones as hammers to crack open nuts. Scientists have also observed other species of animals making tools to solve problems. A crow was seen bending a piece of wire into a hook. Then the crow used the hook to pull food out of a tube. An example of a gorilla using a walking stick is shown in Figure below. Behaviors such as these show that other species of animals can use their experience and reasoning to solve problems. They can learn through insight.

This gorilla is using a branch as a tool. She is leaning on it to keep her balance while she reaches down into swampy water to catch a fish.

Social Behavior
Why is animal communication important? Without it, animals would not be able to live together in groups. Animals that live in groups with other members of their species are called social animals. Social animals include many species of insects, birds, and mammals. Specific examples of social animals are ants, bees, crows, wolves, and humans. To live together with one another, these animals must be able to share information. Highly Social Animals

Some species of animals are very social. In these species, members of the group depend completely on one another. Different animals within the group have different jobs. Therefore, group members must work together for the good of all. Most species of ants and bees are highly social animals. Ants, like those in Figure below, live together in large groups called colonies. A colony may have millions of ants. All of the ants in the colony work together as a single unit. Each ant has a specific job. Most of the ants are workers. Their job is to build and repair the colony’s nest. Worker ants also leave the nest to find food for themselves and other colony members. The workers care for the young as well. Other ants in the colony are soldiers. They defend the colony against predators. Each colony also has a queen. Her only job is to lay eggs. She may lay millions of eggs each month. A few ants in the colony are called drones. They are the only male ants in the colony. Their job is to mate with the queen.

The ants in this picture belong to the same colony. They have left the colony Honeybees and bumblebees also live in colonies. A colony of honeybees is
shown in Figure don’t purge me. Each bee in the colony has a particular job. Most of the bees are workers. Young worker bees clean the colony’s hive and feed the young. Older worker bees build the waxy honeycomb or guard the hive. The oldest workers leave the hive to find food. Each colony usually has one queen that lays eggs. The colony also has a small number of male drones. They mate with the queen.

All the honeybees in this colony work together. Each bee has a certain job to perform. The bees are gathered together to fly to a new home. How do you think they knew it was time to gather together? Cooperation

Ants, bees, and other social animals must cooperate. Cooperation means working together with others. Members of the group may cooperate by sharing food. They may also cooperate by defending each other. Look at the ants in Figure below. They show clearly why cooperation is important. A single ant would not be able to carry this large insect back to the nest to feed the other ants. With cooperation, the job is easy.

These ants are cooperating. By working together, they are able to move this much larger insect prey back to their nest. At the nest, they will share the insect with other ants that do not leave the nest. Animals in many other species cooperate. For example, lions live in groups called prides. A lion pride is shown in Figure below. All the lions in the pride cooperate. Male lions work together to defend the other lions in the pride. Female lions work together to hunt. Then they share the meat with other pride members. Another example is meerkats. Meerkats are small mammals that live in Africa. They also live in groups and cooperate with one another. For example, young female meerkats act as babysitters. They take care of the baby meerkats while their parents are away looking for food.

Members of this lion pride work together. Males cooperate by defending the pride. Females cooperate by hunting and sharing the food. Mating Behavior
Some of the most important animal behaviors involve mating. Mating is the pairing of an adult male and female to produce young. Adults that are most successful at attracting a mate are most likely to have offspring. Traits that help animals attract a mate and have offspring increase their fitness. As the genes that encode these traits are passed to the next generation, the traits will become more common in the population. Courtship Behaviors

In many species, females choose the male they will mate with. For their part, males try to be chosen as mates. They show females that they would be a better mate than the other males. To be chosen as a mate, males may perform courtship behaviors. These are special behaviors that help attract a mate. Male courtship behaviors get the attention of females and show off a male’s traits. Different species have different courtship behaviors. Remember the peacock raising his tail feathers in Figure above? This is an example of courtship behavior. The peacock is trying to impress females of his species with his beautiful feathers. Another example of courtship behavior in birds is shown in Figure below. This bird is called a blue-footed booby. He is doing a dance to attract a female for mating. During the dance, he spreads out his wings and stamps his feet on the ground. .

This blue-footed booby is a species of sea bird. The male pictured here is doing a courtship Courtship behaviors occur in many other species. For example, males in some species of whales have special mating songs to attract females as mates. Frogs croak for the same reason. Male deer clash antlers to court females. Male jumping spiders jump from side to side to attract mates. Courtship behaviors are one type of display behavior. A display behavior is a fixed set of actions that carries a specific message. Although many display behaviors are used to attract mates, some display behaviors have other purposes. For example, display behaviors may be used to warn other animals to stay away, as you will read below. Caring for the Young

In most species of birds and mammals, one or both parents care for their offspring. Caring for the young may include making a nest or other shelter. It may also include feeding the young and protecting them from predators. Caring for offspring increases their chances of surviving. Birds called killdeers have an interesting way to protect their chicks. When a predator gets too close to her nest, a mother killdeer pretends to have a broken wing. The mother walks away from the nest holding her wing as though it is injured. This is what the killdeer in Figure below is doing. The predator thinks she is injured and will be easy prey. The mother leads the predator away from the nest and then flies away.

This mother killdeer is pretending she has a broken wing. She is trying to attract a predator In most species of mammals, parents also teach their offspring important skills. For example, meerkat parents teach their pups how to eat scorpions without being stung. A scorpion sting can be deadly, so this is a very important skill. Teaching the young important skills makes it more likely that they will survive. Defending Territory

Some species of animals are territorial. This means that they defend their area. The area they defend usually contains their nest and enough food for themselves and their offspring. A species is more likely to be territorial if there is not very much food in their area. Animals generally do not defend their territory by fighting. Instead, they are more likely to use display behavior. The behavior tells other animals to stay away. It gets the message across without the need for fighting. Display behavior is generally safer and uses less energy than fighting. Male gorillas use display behavior to defend their territory. They pound on their chests and thump the ground with their hands to warn other male gorillas to keep away from their area. The robin in Figure below is also using display behavior to defend his territory. He is displaying his red breast to warn other robins to stay away.

The red breast of this male robin is easy to see. The robin displays his bright red chest to defend his territory. It warns other robins to keep out of his area. Some animals deposit chemicals to mark the boundary of their territory. This is why dogs urinate on fire hydrants and other objects. Cats may also mark their territory by depositing chemicals. They have scent glands in their face. They deposit chemicals by rubbing their face against objects. Cycles of Behavior

Many animal behaviors change in a regular way. They go through cycles. Some cycles of behavior repeat each year. Other cycles of behavior repeat every
day. Yearly Cycles
An example of a behavior with a yearly cycle is hibernation. Hibernation is a state in which an animal’s body processes are slower than usual and its body temperature falls. An animal uses less energy than usual during hibernation. This helps the animal survive during a time of year when food is scarce. Hibernation may last for weeks or months. Animals that hibernate include species of bats, squirrels, and snakes. Most people think that bears hibernate. In fact, bears do not go into true hibernation. In the winter, they go into a deep sleep. However, their body processes do not slow down very much. Their body temperature also remains about the same as usual. Bears can be awakened easily from their winter sleep.

Instinctual behavior
One type of instinctual behavior is fixed action patterns, which are behaviors the animal is compelled to engage in. For instance, some birds will raise the chicks of other birds if the eggs are put in their nests during nesting season, because caring for an egg is a fixed action pattern. Another instinctual behavior is imprinting, wherein a baby animal accepts a person, or even an item, as a surrogate mother. Sexual behavior is also instinctual, bolstered by play, which helps animals learn courtship and mating skills. Many of these behaviors are dictated by specific body systems, like the nervous system, which responds to stimuli in the environment. Learned behavior

Learned behavior is important both for wild animals, who must learn specific and new ways to survive, and for domestic animals that we seek to train. Animals can learn to anticipate that an action will have a predictable outcome through trial and error, such as dog learning to sit for a treat. This is called operant conditioning. They can also learn that one event precedes another, such as the sound of a metal food bowl being moved signaling food being served, which is known as associative learning. Animals also learn a lot through watching others and mimicry. All of these behaviors allow an animal to adapt to new situations and problems. Abnormal behavior

Identifying behavior patterns enables people to determine when animals are behaving abnormally. These abnormal behaviors might simply be annoying to animal owners; however, in other instances they may also be dangerous for the animal and others or even threaten their very survival. For example, inappropriately aggressive dogs, which might be suffering from disease or trauma, are potentially dangerous to themselves and others. The behavior may be addressed if it is identified as abnormal and normal behavior is reestablished. More important to species survival are mating and raising offspring, and in these cases abnormal behavior that leads to failure to mate or care for offspring can present a threat to the animal’s long-term survival.

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Importance of Animal Behavior. (2016, Apr 08). Retrieved from

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