What is “Behavioural Ecology”?

The first and most obvious question to answer with this blog is what “behavioural ecology” (or “behavioral” ecology, for my American counterparts) is all about.  Historically, there has been some confusion on this matter, because of the overlap between various areas of study which deal with the question of animal behaviour. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is behavioural ecology?  In the introduction to an important textbook in the field, “An introduction to behavioural ecology“, John Krebs and Nick Davies write:

This book is about the survival value of behaviour. We call this subject “behavioural ecology” because the way in which behaviour contributes to survival and reproduction depends on ecology.  If, for example, we want to answer the question “How does living in a group contribute to an individual’s survival”‘, we have to start thinking in terms of the animal’s ecology; the kind of food it easts, its enemies, its nesting requirements and so on. These ecological pressures will determine whether grouping is favoured or penalized by selection. Behavioural ecology is not only concerned with the animal’s struggle to survive by exploiting resources and avoiding predators, but also with how behaviour contributes to reproductive success (p. 1).

The quote above shows that behavioural ecology is defined by the fields that intersect it.  These fields include ecology / ethology, evolutionary theory, and comparative psychology.  But the overriding focus of behavioural ecology is the study of behaviour through the lens of evolution, a laser focus that has set it apart from other fields in the past.  Behavioural ecology includes optimality theory and game theory (including evolutionary game theory) as part of its theoretical traditions, driven by the work of giants like William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.  The kinds of questions that behavioural ecologists study include:

  • Information use by animals.  How do animals gather information about their environment, either personally or by observing others, and then use that information to improve their chances of survival or reproduction?
  • Behavioural syndromes / animal personality.  What drives the consistent differences in individual behaviour that we see in animals (like “aggressive” or “exploratory” behaviour) across different contexts?
  • Life history strategies – body size trade-offs, reproductive timing, etc.
  • Questions about foraging, whether as solitary foragers (optimal foraging theory) or foraging in groups (social foraging theory).  This is an area dear to my heart, because questions about social foraging are occupying the majority of my Ph.D.
  • The evolution of behaviour for mating and breeding;  mate selection, breeding habitats, and so on.
  • As above, the benefits and costs of group membership.  When should an animal join a group, and why?
  • The evolution of other social traits.
  • Learning mechanisms which drive animal behaviour.

And the list goes on.  The questions above come from a quick scan of chapter titles in a recent text on behavioural ecology (Behavioural Ecology, by Danchin, Giraldeau, and Cézilly), but that is not an exhaustive list by any means.

However, in our hurry to set ourselves apart from other fields, I hope that we don’t lose sight of what we owe them and what we can offer them.  I view behavioural ecologists as occupying a unique vantage point smack in the middle of those fields of study which occupy themselves with animal behaviour, working to both integrate the knowledge from those around them in an interdisciplinary way as well as extending that knowledge to give back.

But hey, I’m just a hopeless romantic.

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One thought on “What is “Behavioural Ecology”?

  1. […] I wrote about my current field of study, behavioural ecology, attempting to explain what it is and what […]

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