California State University, Northridge
Significance of Animal Behavior Research
Prepared by Charles T. Snowdon
[while President of the
Animal behavior is the bridge between the molecular and
physiological aspects of biology and the ecological. Behavior is
the link between organisms and environment and between the nervous
system, and the ecosystem. Behavior is one of the most important
properties of animal life. Behavior plays a critical role in
biological adaptations. Behavior is how we humans define our own
lives. Behavior is that part of an organism by which it interacts
with its environment. Behavior is as much a part of an organisms as
its coat, wings etc. The beauty of an animal includes its
For the same reasons that we study the universe and subatomic
particles there is intrinsic interest in the study of animals. In
view of the amount of time that television devotes to animal films
and the amount of money that people spend on nature books there is
much more public interest in animal behavior than in neutrons and
neurons. If human curiosity drives research, then animal behavior
should be near the top of our priorities.
Research on animal behavior and behavioral ecology has been
burgeoning in recent years despite below inflation increases (and
often decreases) in research funding. Two of our journals Animal
Behaviour and Behavior Ecology and Sociobiology rank in the top six
behavioral science AND zoological journals in terms of impact as
measured by the Science Citation Index. From 1985 to 1990 Animal
Behaviour has grown from quarterly to monthly publication and its
page budget has more than doubled. Many related journals have
increased their size and frequency of publication in the same
period. Ours is an active and vital field.
While the study of animal behavior is important as a
scientific field on its own, our science has made important
contributions to other disciplines with applications to the study
of human behavior, to the neurosciences, to the environment and
resource management, to the study of animal welfare and to the
education of future generations of scientists.
A. ANIMAL BEHAVIOR AND HUMAN SOCIETY
- Many problems in human society are often related to the
interaction of environment and behavior or genetics and behavior.
The fields of socioecology and animal behavior deal with the issue
of environment behavioral interactions both at an evolutionary
level and a proximate level. Increasingly social scientists are
turning to animal behavior as a framework in which to interpret
human society and to understand possible causes of societal
problems. (e.g. Daly and Wilson's book on human homicide is based
on an evolutionary analysis from animal research. Many studies on
child abuse utilize theory and data from studies on infanticide in
- Research by de Waal on chimpanzees and monkeys has
illustrated the importance of cooperation and reconciliation in
social groups. This work provides new perspectives by which to view
and ameliorate aggressive behavior among human beings.
- The methodology applied to study animal behavior has had a
tremendous impact in psychology and the social sciences. Jean
Piaget began his career with the study of snails, and he extended
the use of careful behavioral observations and descriptions to his
landmark studies on human cognitive development. J. B. Watson began
his study of behavior by observing gulls. Aspects of experimental
design, observation techniques, attention to nonverbal
communication signals were often developed in animal behavior
studies before their application to studies of human behavior. The
behavioral study of humans would be much diminished today without
the influence of animal research.
- Charles Darwin's work on emotional expression in animals
has had an important influence on many psychologists, such as Paul
Ekman, who study human emotional behavior.
- Harry Harlow's work on social development in rhesus monkeys
has been of major importance to theories of child development and
to psychiatry. The work of Overmier, Maier and Seligman on learned
helplessness has had a similar effect on child development and
- The comparative study of behavior over a wide range of
species can provide insights into influences affecting human
behavior. For example, the woolly spider monkey in Brazil displays
no overt aggressive behavior among group members. We might learn
how to minimize human aggression if we understood how this species
of monkey avoids aggression. If we want to have human fathers be
more involved in infant care, we can study the conditions under
which paternal care has appeared in other species like the
California mouse or in marmosets and tamarins. Studies of various
models of the ontogeny of communication in birds and mammals have
had direct influence on the development of theories and the
research directions in the study of child language. The richness of
developmental processes in behavior, including multiple sources and
the consequences of experience are significant in understanding
processes of human development.
- Understanding the differences in adaptability between
species that can live in a variety of habitats versus those that
are restricted to limited habitats can lead to an understanding of
how we might improve human adaptability as our environments change.
- Research by animal behaviorists on animal sensory systems
has led to practical applications for extending human sensory
systems. Griffin's demonstrations on how bats use sonar to locate
objects has led directly to the use of sonar techniques in a wide
array of applications from the military to fetal diagnostics.
- Studies of chimpanzees using language analogues have led to
new technology (computer keyboards using arbitrary symbols) that
have been applied successfully to teaching language to
disadvantaged human populations.
- Basic research on circadian and other endogenous rhythms
in animals has led to research relevant to human factors and
productivity in areas such as coping with jet-lag or changing from
one shift to another.
- Research on animals has developed many of the important
concepts relating to coping with stress, for example studies of the
importance of prediction and control on coping behavior.
B. ANIMAL BEHAVIOR AND NEUROBIOLOGY
- Sir Charles Sherrington, an early Nobel Prize winner,
developed a model for the structure and function of the nervous
system based only on close behavioral observation and deduction.
Seventy years of subsequent neurobiological research has completely
supported the inferences Sherrington made from behavioral
- Neuroethology, the integration of animal behavior and the
neurosciences, provides important frameworks for hypothesizing
neural mechanisms. Careful behavioral data allow neurobiologists to
narrow the scope of their studies and to focus on relevant input
stimuli and attend to relevant responses. In many case the use of
species specific natural stimuli has led to new insights about
neural structure and function that contrast with results obtained
using non-relevant stimuli.
- Recent work in animal behavior has demonstrated a downward
influence of behavior and social organization on physiological and
cellular processes. Variations in social environment can inhibit or
stimulate ovulation, produce menstrual synchrony, induce
miscarriages and so on. Other animal studies show that the quality
of the social and behavioral environment have a direct effect on
immune system functioning. Researchers in physiology and immunology
need to be guided by these behavioral and social influences to
properly control their own studies.
C. ANIMAL BEHAVIOR AND THE ENVIRONMENT, CONSERVATION AND RESOURCE
- The behavior of animals often provides the first clues or
early warning signs of environmental degradation. Changes in sexual
and other behavior occur much sooner and at lower levels of
environmental disruption than changes in reproductive outcomes and
population size. If we wait to see if numbers of animal populations
are declining, it may be too late to take measures to save the
environment. Studies of natural behavior in the field are vital to
provide baseline data for future environmental monitoring. For
example, the Environmental Protection Agency uses disruptions in
swimming behavior of minnows as an index of possible pesticide
- Basic research on how salmon migrate back to their home
streams started more than 40 years ago by Arthur Hasler has taught
us much about the mechanisms of migration. This information has
also been valuable in preserving the salmon industry in the Pacific
Northwest and applications of Hasler's results has led to the
development of a salmon fishing industry in the Great Lakes. Basic
animal behavior research can have important economic implications.
- Animal behaviorists have described variables involved in
insect reproduction and host plant location leading to the
development of non-toxic pheromones for insect pest control that
avoid the need for toxic pesticides. Understanding of predator prey
relationships can lead to the introduction of natural predators on
- Knowledge of honeybee foraging behavior can be applied to
mechanisms of pollination which in turn is important for plant
breeding and propagation.
- An understanding of foraging behavior in animals can lead
to an understanding of forest regeneration. Many animals serve as
seed dispersers and are thus essential for the propagation of tree
species and essential for habitat preservation.
- The conservation of endangered species requires that we
know enough about natural behavior (migratory patterns, home range
size, interactions with other groups, foraging demands,
reproductive behavior, communication, etc) in order to develop
effective reserves and effective protection measures. Relocation or
reintroduction of animals (such as the golden lion tamarin) is not
possible without detailed knowledge of a species' natural history.
With the increasing importance of environmental programs and human
management of populations of rare species, both in captivity and in
the natural habitat, animal behavior research becomes increasingly
important. Many of the world's leading conservationists have a
background in animal behavior or behavioral ecology.
- Basic behavioral studies on reproductive behavior have led
to improved captive breeding methods for whooping cranes, golden
lion tamarins, cotton-top tamarins, and many other endangered
species. Captive breeders who were ignorant of the species' natural
reproductive behavior were generally unsuccessful.
D. ANIMAL BEHAVIOR AND ANIMAL WELFARE
- Our society has placed increased emphasis on the welfare of
research and exhibit animals. US law now requires attending to
exercise requirements for dogs and the psychological well-being of
nonhuman primates. Animal welfare without knowledge is impossible.
Animal behavior researchers look at the behavior and well-being of
animals in lab and field. We have provided expert testimony to
bring about reasonable and effective standards for the care and
well-being of research animals.
- Further developments in animal welfare will require input
from animal behavior specialists. Improved conditions for farm
animals, breeding of endangered species, proper care of companion
animals all require a strong behavioral data base.
E. ANIMAL BEHAVIOR AND SCIENCE EDUCATION
Many in our society are concerned with scientific illiteracy,
the lack of interest that students have in science and the fact
that women and minority groups are underrepresented in science.
Courses in animal behavior and behavioral ecology serve as hooks to
interest students in behavioral biology. At the University of
Wisconsin, Madison more than 700 students a year take courses in
animal behavior and behavioral ecology in the Departments of
Anthropology, Psychology and Zoology, yet none of these courses
serve as required courses for majors. Cornell University enrolls
nearly 400 students in an Introduction to Behavior course that is
required of only 60-70 students. Enrollment has grown by 30% in the
last three years. At the University of Stirling, Scotland, 75% of
graduates in Psychology enroll in the elective, non-required animal
behavior course. At the University of Washington, Seattle, more
than 300 students enroll each quarter in a basic animal behavior
class. Similar results can be found on many other campuses.
For many students, especially females, these courses are their
first introduction to behavioral biology. Many female
undergraduates approach us to discuss graduate school and research
careers after taking these courses. 75% or more of our graduate
applicants are female. A good proportion of students enrolled in
animal behavior courses become motivated for research careers, but
there is little hope to offer them that they will actually be able
to become practicing scientists when they finish due to severe
limitations on research funding.