Skip to Main Content

Animal Behaviorists


Man's desire and need to understand animal behavior can be traced back over 40,000 years by viewing Paleolithic art depicting primitive humans observing animals as they hunted. The study of animal behavior includes ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior under natural conditions, and behaviorism, the scientific study of animal behavior in a laboratory.

Human’s need to study animals has multiple purposes. At a basic level, people have always been interested in how animals interact with their environment and why they act the way they do in differing circumstances. Animal behaviorists study whether certain behaviors of animals are innate, or learned, or both. How and why, for example, do animals choose certain mates; how do they find food, and how or why do they protect their territory. We might wonder how birds know when it is time to fly south, how they find their way, and how they know when it is time to turn around and go back north. We might wonder how animals know how to care for their young and how they determine when it is time to let them go on their own. Work in this area impacts our treatment of wild and domesticated animals, including development of animal welfare programs, breeding programs, regulation of zoos and zoological habitats, and even municipal licensing and laws regarding household pets.

However, the historical study of animal behavior has developed an even greater significance in its application to the study of human behaviors. Early credit for the study of ethology has been given to zoologist and educator Charles O. Witman in the mid 1800s. Witman worked extensively with pigeons to study heredity, coining the term instinct when describing the display patterns of the birds. Charles Darwin, best known for developing his theory of evolution in the 1800s, studied and published his works and observations of the intersection of psychology and animal behavior in his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. In the early 1900s, American psychologist Harry Harlow developed theories relating to mother-child bonding based upon his studies of the behavior of rhesus monkeys. In 1973, three scientists, Nickolas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch, jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, being credited as the founders of ethology based on their respective research on birds and bees, and the application of that research to the behavior patterns of both animals and humans.

Research and observation of animal behavior continues to be significant in ensuring global animal health and welfare, as well as in the study of human development and behavior.