What is Animal Behavior?
Animal behavior is the scientific study of everything animals do, whether the animals are
single-celled organisms, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, or mammals. It involves
investigating the relationship of animals to their physical environment as well as to other
organisms, and includes such topics as how animals find and defend resources, avoid predators,
choose mates and reproduce, and care for their young.
People who study animal behavior are concerned with understanding the causes, functions,
development, and evolution of behavior. The causes of behavior include both the external stimuli
that affect behavior, and the internal hormonal and neural mechanisms that control behavior. The
functions of behavior include its immediate effects on animals and its adaptive value in helping
animals to survive or reproduce successfully in a particular environment. The development of
behavior pertains to the ways in which behavior changes over the lifetime of an animal, and how
these changes are affected by both genes and experience. The evolution of behavior relates to the
origins of behavior patterns and how these change over generations.
What education and/or training is needed for a career in animal behavior?
Most scientists directly involved in animal behavior work in one of four broad fields:
ethology, comparative psychology, behavioral ecology, or anthropology. These disciplines
overlap greatly in their goals, interests, and methods. However, psychologists and ethologists are
primarily concerned with the regulation and functions of behavior, whereas behavioral ecologists
focus on how behavioral patterns relate to social and environmental conditions. Ethologists and
behavioral ecologists usually are trained in departments of biology, zoology, ecology and
evolution, entomology, wildlife, or other animal sciences. Most comparative psychologists are
trained in psychology departments. Behaviorists specializing in the study of human behavior are
usually trained in anthropology, psychology, or sociology departments.
Some jobs in animal behavior require only a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or a Bachelor of
Science (B.S.) degree. However, most careers in animal behavior require advanced degrees,
sometimes a Master of Arts or of Science (MA., M.S.), but usually a Doctor of Philosophy
(Ph.D.) or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DV.M.). Earning advanced degrees requires a very
good undergraduate background, a strong academic record, motivation, and hard work.