I have been asked on several occasions what on earth an ethologist is, so here goes. A tad serious, perhaps, but I’ll try and keep things interesting.
Ethology is the science of animal behaviour, but with the distinction that it observes and deciphers behaviour in the wild. In natural conditions.
From a mouse nibbling at a seed to two giant elephant males, in musth, fighting for mating rights in a herd. It’s working out what that stern look from a baboon to a subordinate actually means.
The common questions asked when discussing animal behaviour are when, where, how and how often, and with whom. Ethology askes one more question: why?
There are fours essential aspects to this:
Causation: what stimulated that particular behaviour in the first place?
Development: did the animal learn the behaviour or is it inate?
Function: what is the behaviour for? Does it improve the animals chances of survival or mating success?
Evolution: was there ancestral evidence of the behaviour observed currently? What evolutionary path was followed to get to this current position?
Let’s put it into perspective.
A predator, hunting, spots an antelope (causation). It stalks the prey, it’s stealth allowing to get extremely close to the prey (function). The predator’s knowledge of the prey’s habits, the terrain of the home range allows the predator to make optimum use of cover (development). Stalking is typical behaviour for the big cats when there is adequate cover and which cannot run over long distances (evolution).
To qualify as scientific observation, those observations have to be logical and to relate to what is actually happening in the real world. If the deductions we come up with do not match with what actually happens, it’s a sure thing that no matter how elegant, persuasive or fervently held those views are, they are wrong.
Ethology, like all the sciences, only progresses in knowledge by discarding faulty hypotheses and replacing them with theories that more closely match the observed behaviour more closely.
While on the subject – the word ‘theory’ is also seriously misunderstood. It’s common in science. For instance: 2 + 2 = 4. Fact? Or theory? Scientifically it is still a theory simply because nothing has come along – so far – to disprove it. But it could happen, so it remains a theory. A simplistic example I know, but I hope it makes things a bit clearer. Scientists enjoy ‘busting’ theories, that’s why they are scientists!
Two foundations are used:
Occam’s razor: do not use a complicated explanation when a simple one will fit.
Lloyd-Morgan’s canon: never explain an animal’s behaviour as the outcome of a higher capacity or power of mind if it can be satisfactorily explained by a lower one.
There is no such thing as typical mammal behaviour, as the typical mammal is a mythical beast. There is, for example, no such thing as the lion, or the hippo. A single animal cannot stand for the entire species.
Some of the most fascinating insights have been derived from groups animals of a single species living successfully in different areas, where they have to respond to different challenges of climate, food, predators and disease.
Interpretation of animal behaviour also depends from what aspect this behaviour has been observed. For instance, antelope have evolved into the Olympic runners of the bush. They’ve had to. They have to be pretty good if they are to evade predators. A scientific study into antelope energy usage, for instance, would determine that running only takes up about 6% of a wildebeest’s time.
From the wildebeest’s perspective, though, energy conservation or statistics are not very important when a lion is following along behind it, intent on having lunch!
Ethology is essentially the study of wild animals in the wild. And the wild diminishes daily. Migrations are constrained by fences and by human encroachment into traditional game areas.
Only in the largest conservation areas can ethology still be effectively studied, giving us an insight into the behaviour, habits and territorial requirements of the animals.
As well as tenaciously conserving what is left of the wilderness areas, we must also take all the opportunities left to us to work in a disappearing natural environment.
A laboratory scientist can build new facilities, install new equipment, attract new subjects of research, but once ethology’s subject matter has gone, it’s gone forever.
This has been a short explanation which I hope sheds some light on what ethology is all about.
It’s an important branch of science. Without a clear understanding of animal behaviour and the animal’s needs, plus the interaction that occurs between all species, our wildlife will die.
And we don’t want that, do we?