How do we study behavioural ecology?

Yesterday, I wrote about my current field of study, behavioural ecology, attempting to explain what it is and what questions it tries to answer.  But I didn’t talk much about how it is studied.  How do we answer questions in behavioural ecology?

In general, there are three (overlapping) general techniques to be used.  Field studies are common, and have the flavour of the Wild West:  you pick your species, pack up your gear, and head into the wild blue yonder to collect data on your chosen animal.  You spend days, weeks, or months in the field, hoping that your data cooperate, and then come back to civilization to run some stats and publish your findings.  Field biology is romantic, and it draws a lot of outdoors types who like science and want to spend their time in the wilderness. I say this with a touch of envy;  I wish I had it in me to be a field biologist, but it just doesn’t work for me.

The second major method is the laboratory experiment.  Laboratory studies in behavioural ecology are important for their ability to control for confounding variables in a way you simply can’t in the wild, though this often comes at a corresponding cost to ecological validity (the match between the experimental setup and the real environment of the animal and its behaviour).  Labs tend to work on a few model species;  for example, one of the species that my lab does work with is the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata), which is one of the most widely-studied bird species.  Fish, like cichlids or guppies, are also common in lab work on behaviour.  Lab work is where you most often see the use of methods from other areas of biology, like molecular work or behavioural endocrinology, for obvious reasons of convenience.  I’ve done some lab work myself, but it is by no means where I spend the bulk of my time.

The third major method in the study of behaviour is modeling.  Biologists use mathematics, computer simulation, and statistics to create models of the behaviour and its evolution so that we can better understand it.  These models are used to drive new empirical work in the lab or the field, or explain results which have already been collected.  Because I’m primarily a modeler myself, you’ll see a lot about that on this blog, because one of the goals I have is to demystify the process and results of mathematical models of behaviour.

Now, I’ve talked about these three methods like they are distinct things, but it has to be stressed that everyone studying behavioural ecology has different mixtures of each tool in their tool box.  Some people are mainly field biologists, but even hardcore field people will do lab experiments to explore aspects of behaviour that they see in the wild in a more controlled experiment, and they will turn to models to help explain that behaviour.  Experimentalists love to see their work replicated in wild populations, and some will even head out into the field to do it themselves, while modelers have nothing to explain if there’s no data from experiments or field studies!  As a modeler myself, I never lose sight of the fact that the reason I’m trying to create these models of behaviour is to explain why real animals do the things that they do.

I know, I know;  this is a bit of a dry topic, reminiscent of the “methods” sections of your intro science courses in undergraduate studies.  But it gets better: in coming posts, I’m going to write about examples of each of these three methods from the best of both current and historical work, to showcase some of the more exciting examples of behavioural ecology past and present.  If you have any requests for topics to cover, or questions about how behavioural ecology is studied, please let me know by e-mail, Twitter, or leave a comment!

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One thought on “How do we study behavioural ecology?

  1. […] made it pretty clear by now that I do a lot of computational work in my research, so you can imagine that my […]

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