Literally, the biological study of behaviour. Ethologists spend a great deal of their time studying animals in their feral (wild) state. As a result of painstaking observation of different species, ethologists are able to produce a detailed description (ethogram) of the patterns of behaviour of the animals concerned. For example, observations of the behaviour of the male stickleback during the breeding season shows stereotypical movements and activities that are common to all males within the same species. They gather weed and glue it together to form a nest. If another male approaches, they show a special ‘head down’ posture which is a threat display to the intruder. If a female approaches, he leads her to the nest with a ‘zig-zag’ dance. After she has laid her eggs in his nest, he follows her into the nest and fertilises the eggs. As part of his responsibility to his newly acquired nest of eggs, he fans them to keep them supplied with oxygen. The ethologist Niko Tinbergen suggested that there were four main questions that could be asked in the study of animal behaviour:
• development – does the behaviour change over the lifetime of the animal?
• causes – is the behaviour a product of internal states or external stimuli?
• functions – why does the animal behave in that way? What are the advantages to the animal?
• evolution – what are the evolutionary origins of the behaviour?
Early ethological theories about animal behaviour were based more on careful observation and intuition than on the experimental evidence more typically associated with scientific psychology.
Although the ethological study of animal behaviour tends to be found under the heading of comparative psychology in A-level syllabuses and textbooks, there are significant differences between the two disciplines. Ethologists have an interest in many different species and the different behaviours characteristic of those species. Comparative psychologists, on the other hand, study a restricted number of species with the assumption that they can develop general laws of behaviour that would apply to all species. This study of species-specific behaviour is very important in ethology. Patterns of stereotyped behaviour in these species led ethologists to believe that such behaviour was innat or instinctive. The controversy between ethology and comparative psychology has led to important changes in thinking in both disciplines. Psychologists came to acknowledge the evolutionary influences and constraints on learning , and ethologists began to see the value of a carefully controlled experimental approach in the understanding of animal behaviour.