Ethology: The Science of Animal Behavior

Ethology helps us understand animal behavior better. Thanks to this discipline, there’s a lot we currently understand - and more to learn!
Ethology: The Science of Animal Behavior
María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez

Written and verified by the psychologist María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez.

Last update: 02 November, 2023

The animal kingdom is marvelous. Surely these beings have surprised you with their incomparable characteristics and behavior. But have you ever wondered why they act as they do? If you have, then ethology is exactly the discipline you want to study. 

That’s right! There’s an entire field of science dedicated to animal behavior. Ethology asks questions such as: Why do animals behave the way they do? What does their behavior mean? How do they do the things they do?

Thanks to ethology, humans can now understand animal behavior that we didn’t before, as well as why they behave the way they do. Keep reading to learn how this science came about, what’s involved, and which scientists are responsible for its development.

“I have found the missing link between the higher ape and civilized man; it is we.”

-Konrad Lorenz-

What are the origins of ethology?

Ethology came about thanks to the work of professionals with an insatiable passion for animals. They dedicated much of their time to them. Actually, Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize in Physiology thanks to their 1973 studies about animal behavior.

A woman holding an animal's paws in her hands.

But how did they get there? Well, by way of their research. Lorenz dove deep into the behavior of geese, and from there proposed the theory of imprinting. Tinbergen was interested in the three-spined stickleback and studied its fall migration. In the meantime, von Frisch focused on how bees communicated.

In addition to this, they found inspiration from other thinkers who studied animal behavior. For example, Morton Wheeler studied the behavior of ants for an extended period of time. He also popularized the term “ethnology”.

There were already studies on animal behavior in other disciplines (such as in comparative psychology), but once the aforementioned Nobel prize was won, it was officially considered a science. Comparative psychology integrated itself into the field.

What does ethology involve?

Ethology is the study of animal behavior and focuses especially on natural selection. Professionals in this area, called ethologists, study the following:

  • Fieldwork. To observe the behavior of animals in their natural environment.
  • Lab work. This is for research. There, they develop their hypotheses and propose new ones.
  • Explaining phenomenon. Researchers pose questions about adaptive behavior and observe stimuli. They also look at behavior modifications as a result of learning and establish behavior patterns in different life stages.
  • Compare. The behavior of other species to see how their behavior has evolved.

As you can see, ethology is interested in both animals’ innate behavior and learned behavior. Due to this, ethologists focus on areas such as the following: imprinting, social life, development, sexual selection, cooperation, and aggression, among others.

Ethology contributions

Ethology contributes enormously to our understanding of animals. Here are just a few:

  • Patterns of modal behavior. These are secondary behaviors. In other words, circuits of behavioral reflection that activate under specific situations.
  • Theory of behavior as adaptation. This theory proposes that behavior is evolutionary in nature.
  • Imprinting. This consists of the learning that occurs during development in which there’s greater sensitivity to specific stimuli. These are lessons that grow strong roots.
  • Animal communication. Animals use patterns of modal behavior in their communication. For example, bees communicate through aerial dance.
  • Behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology. Ethology has left space for these two fields. The former studies animal behavior based on their ecological and evolutionary implications. The latter proposes that human behavior can be understood through evolutionary history.
  • Clinical ethology. This studies the changes in animal behavior. For example, when domesticated animals suddenly behave aggressively.
A hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower.


So, in ethology, scientists study different characteristics of animal behavior, almost always through observation. In addition to this, the area of study contributes to the understanding of human behavior through comparison.

Thanks to ethological research, we also have some important conservation tools. Along with ecologists, they form plans to protect species that are in danger of extinction. Marcelo H. Cassini outlines this in his publication in the Revista de la Sociedad Española de Etología (Spanish link).

Ethology helps to increase animals’ well-being, optimize production, diagnose diseases, and improve animal survival in animals in danger of extinction. In addition to this, its study gives scientists tools to develop animal-assisted therapy.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Cassini, M.H (1999). Importancia de la etología en la ConservaciónEtología, 7, 69-75.
  • Sánchez López, S., Asencio, N., Call, Jossep., Caperos J.M., Coelell, M., Colmenares, F., Delgado, J.A., Fidalgo, A., Gil, C., González, A., Losada, J.L., Martín, B., Peláez, F., Quera, V., Redolar, D., Riba, C. E., Sánchez, J.R., Sánchez, S., Tassino, B., & Turbón, E. (2014) Etología, la ciencia del comportamiento animal. Editorial Uoc.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.