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53.9: Behavioral Ecology

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    Behavioral ecology is the study of the evolutionary basis for animal behavior due to ecological pressures (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Behavioral ecology emerged after Nikolaas Tinbergen outlined four questions to address when studying animal behaviors (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)) that focused on two levels of answers: What are the ultimate (evolutionary) explanations of behavior, and what are the proximate (physiological or developmental) explanations of behavior?


    An image of lots of baby penguins waddling around in the snow.A bee waggle dance path is shown with its angle relative to the sun and a flower marked as "a".An image of a bright green frog with an inflated vocal sac.An image of a gazelle jumping over a dry field.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The study of behavioral ecology focuses on the ways organisms behaviorally interact with their physical and social environment. Here we see penguins huddling in the Antarctic (Ian Duffy), the bee waggle dance communicating information (Emmanuel Boutet), a frog with inflated vocal sac (Benny Trapp), and a stotting gazelle (Rick Wilhelmsen).

    Tinbergen's four questions are complementary categories of explanations for animal behaviour. These are also commonly referred to as levels of analysis.[1] It suggests that an integrative understanding of behaviour must include: ultimate (evolutionary) explanations, in particular the behaviour (1) adaptive function and (2) phylogenetic history; and the proximate explanations, in particular the (3) underlying physiological mechanisms and (4) ontogenetic/developmental history.[2]

    When asked about the purpose of sight in humans and animals, even elementary-school children can answer that animals have vision to help them find food and avoid danger (function/adaptation). Biologists have three additional explanations: sight is caused by a particular series of evolutionary steps (phylogeny), the mechanics of the eye (mechanism/causation), and even the process of an individual's development (ontogeny).

    Table of Tinbergen's categories of questions.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Summary of Tinbergen's four questions (Dan Wetzel).

    53.9: Behavioral Ecology is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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