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Animal Behavior

Editor(s):  Sara Tenney | 

Why do praying mantises display a unique mating system, called sexual cannibalism, where a member of a male-female pair kills and consumes the other during courtship or copulation? At the end of every summer, why do more than 100 million monarch butterflies sweep across North America to overwinter further south in California and Mexico? Animal behavior is the study of these and other questions about why animals behave the way they do.

The study of animal behavior begins with understanding how an animal’s physiology and anatomy are integrated with its behavior. Both external and internal stimuli prompt behaviors — external information (e.g., threats from other animals, sounds, smells) or weather and internal information (e.g., hunger, fear). Understanding how genes and the environment come together to shape animal behavior is also an important underpinning of the field. Genes capture the evolutionary responses of prior populations to selection on behavior. Environmental flexibility gives animals the opportunity to adjust to changes during their own lifetime.

Scientists are drawn to the study of animal behavior for varied reasons and the field is extremely broad, ranging from research on feeding behavior and habitat selection to mating behavior and social organizations. Many scientists study animal behavior because it sheds light on human beings. Research on non-human primates, for instance, continues to offer valuable perspectives into the causes and evolution of individual, social, and reproductive human actions. Understanding why some animals help others at the potential cost of their own survival and reproduction, for example, not only gives us insight into their behavior but could also potentially help us to understand the underpinnings of our species' ideas of altruism and sacrifice.

Other scientists are motivated by environmental concerns. When we gain insight into animal behavior, we are in a stronger position to understand vexing conservation problems, such as how to save endangered species, assess environmental quality, design nature preserves, and evaluate the importance of human-related threats to survival in otherwise fit animals.

To develop a rich understanding of animal behavior, begin with this introductory overview, and then explore the more than twenty other summaries you’ll find below.

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