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Behavorial Biology

This section obviously deals with behavior, which in the book is defined as what an animal does and how it does it.

Ecologists explain behavior in two different ways, ultimately and promixately. Ultimate are evolutionary explanations for things - how certain behaviors emerged in the evolutionary framework. And for proximate explanations, it's like its name implies: how the behaviors work on a more shorter scale, such as the physiological reason for a certain behavior.

Ultimate and Proximate Explanations
Big Concept (tm)

An example of an ultimate question would be: "Why did the skunk's smelly defense mechanism evolve the way it did?" And the answer would be: "Because natural select choose the skunk with the defense that worked the best: the smelliest."

On the other hand, an example of a proximate question would be: "How does the mechanism for the skunk's gas attack work?" And the answer would be: "Because it has this sac that shoots out this chemical."

Both deal with the skunk's defense ability, but are on different levels.

Nature vs. Nuture

In the book, it talks about the big contreversey between Nature vs Nuture, and how in ecology, it isn't black and white, but more like shades of grey; behaviors can be attributed to varying degrees of both - very few behaviors are either totally because of nature's design or because of adapation to the environment. Initial behaviors come from being born, and later change because of the environment, and advanced behaviors evolve in an individual in response to environmental adaptation.

Innate behavior - basically, this is behavior that NEVER, EVER changes, regardless of the environment.

Modern behavioral biology has it's roots in ethology. Ethology developed the concept of:

Fixed Action Patterns (FAP)

These are triggered by a sign stimulus.

Now, FAP are seen as a bit too simplistic, because ethologists of a long time ago tried to find answers by asking proximate questions. Now modern behavior biology extends FAPs into concepts that use ultimate questions in order to find explanations to behaviors.

Evolution and Behaviorial Ecology

If you haven't figured it out yet, evolution and behavior are linked together. In fact, behavior seen in today's organisms are a result of millions of years of evolution. Not only do the physical parts (the morphological parts) of organisms evolve, behavior evolves too. Think about it, without behavior, it doesn't matter if you have the best fit body parts, they're useless if you don't have the behavior to use them wisely.

Natural selection favors organisms with the best behavior.

Foraging Behavior

I won't go over this too much, but I'll briefly cover how animals develop foraging strategies. Foraging is how animals search for food, because animals simply cannot eat everything. So, they have to use what is called optimal foraging strategies, which simply means the best foraging strategies. They use a search image, which in English is basically steps to get to a goal.

The biggest part of behavior is learning. I mean, not everything an animal does is innate, or born within the animal.


Learning is defined as the modification of behavior resulting from specific experiences. In English, it simply means changing the way you act because of things that happen in the environment.

Here, learning is divided into these Big Concepts and small concepts :

Simple Learning


Advanced Learning

Associative Learning

classical conditioning
operant conditioning


The simplest types of learning are habituation and imprinting type learning, which are basic nature-specifically engineered learning. In other words, learning that comes from the direct need of self defense, like habituation, or learning that benefits the organism, like imprinting.

Habituation and imprinting
For example:

An example of habituation is the overriding of a reaction. Like in the book, the hydra plant (not sure what it is) automatically moves away (retracts) if you touch it a couple times. However, if you keep on doing it, it just stops reacting because it learns that from touching it, it gets no harm for you.

Imprinting is easier to understand - just think of the duck example in the book. The first face it sees during its critical period is automatically defined as The Mother(ship).

Imprinting is learning limited to a critical time period.

Now the advanced types of learning are higher level.

Associative learning is an organism learning to connect one stimulus with another.

There are two types of associative learning defined in the book: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. The definitions are fairly straightforward in the book, so I won't repeat them here.

Classical Conditioning
For example:

An example of classical conditioning is this: monkeys love bananas right? Well they probably act all hyper whenever they think of bananas. So let's do a little experiment: let's give them bananas. But right before we give them bananas, we show them the movie Jungle Book. We do this a lot of times. So what if we suddenly stop giving bananas, but still show them the Jungle Book. They'll still act all strange, because they link watching the Jungle Book with getting some yummy bananas

Play - play is aimless. So what's the evolutionary (the Ultimate Explanation) for play?


Overall, play benefits individuals that mess around (tell that to your parents!)

Animal Cognition

Cognition, regardless of how complex any textbook says it is, is just the ability to think things through.

Cognitive ethology - the study of animal cognition.

Concepts of cognitive ethology:

Cognitive maps


Social biology is another big part of behavioral biology - how animals interact with each other.

Types of social behavior:

Agnostic Behavior - a display of both threatening and submissive behavior where two animals can decide which one is allowed access to some resource (food or mate). It is almost the same thing as ritual, which is agnostic behavior that is nonharming.

Agnostic Behavior
For example:

Wolves move around in packs - and there is a dominant male, called the alpha. Sometimes another male wolf in the pack may want to challenge the alpha, so they engage in agnostic behavior, a fight which determines who's the better wolf.

Dominance Hierachies - a pecking order - an organization. The evolutionary explanation for this is that animals benefit from this because the more experienced animals are in charge. Think about our presidential elections - we choose the better man (John Kerry!) to lead the nation.

Territory - animals defend territories because it allows them to control the resources within their territory.

Mating behavior

Mating behavior is important, because for most animals it's the only way to attract mates.

In some species, females choose between males, which is one way of natural selection at work - only the most fit genes get passed on.

Mating systems:

Polgyny vs Polyandry

Certainty of Paternity
WeIrD Concept (tm)

The certainty of paternity affects mating systems. Consider a two birds in a relationship. Even in a monogamous relationship (one male mating with a female), it isn't that certain that the male fathered a female's children, because it takes some time between the act of mating (fertilization) and the act of birthing - who knows who the female mated with before. So that's why in birds and mammals, there are very few males that care for their children - they never know if its their kid or not.

However, when fertilization and birthing are at the same time (frogs or other aquatic animals), the male is absolutely sure of who fathered who, so there is a higher chance of males caring for their young.


Animals interact each other largely with communication. The different types of communication are listed in the book, so I won't belabor them here, but I want to emphasize the main point of the 2+ pages of text: effective communication enhances the fitness of an individual. The clearer it sends its message, the more fit it is - all the result of natural selection.

Concepts of altruism

What's the ultimate explanation for altruism (helping each other out)? Parents care for their own children because they want to make sure their genes get passed on. What about close relatives? While their close relatives may not have the exact copy of their genes, it still has some representation (maybe 50%), so by helping close relatives AND their own children, they maximize their genetic represenation in future generations. It's like your parents helping your cousins survive, so in 200 years from now, they can be assured that their blood is still running through lots of people.

inclusive fitness - effect of altruism of an individual by helping its own children AND close relatives.