A Day In The Life of An Animal Behaviorist

An animal behaviorist typically studies the roots of the behavior of all animals, from the smallest single cell organisms to the largest mammals and everything that falls in-between. Because there are so many different animals and factors contributing to their behaviors, such as environment and evolution, there are several highly specialized areas of practice for the animal behaviorist.

Animal behaviorists seek to answer four notable questions which were inquired by esteemed animal behaviorist, Niko Tinbergen. These questions are utilized by behaviorists as a guide for studying the effects of a wide range of factors on animal behavior. Tinbergen asked the following:

  • An animal behaviorist's typical day is filled with more than just play.

    An animal behaviorist’s typical day is filled with more than just play.

    What is the cause of the behavior or trigger for displayed behavior?

  • How did this behavior develop over the animal’s lifetime?
  • What function(s) does this behavior serve?
  • How did this behavior evolve over time?

These questions are very similar to those asked by examiners of human behavior, but it is much more difficult to get to the root of what causes animal behavior without being able to communicate with the subjects in study. Techniques have been improved over time, however, and the study of animal behavior has even led to multiple advancements in understanding human behavior.

How Do They Do It?

When behaviorists consider the questions posed by Tinbergen, they examine the physical environment of the subject along with its relationship to the other creatures living in its habitat. Observing how the subject interacts with its surroundings unlocks clues to how the animal survives and has survived over time. This can include how its food and home is found and protected from predators. The way its relationships are formed with mates, leading to reproduction and nurture for their offspring, is also examined.

Researchers often find that the causes of these behaviors tend to be reactions to external stimuli or an animal’s chemical composition along with neural configurations. The causes for development of behavior over a lifespan are found by examining the subject’s genes and experiences. The function of a behavior can be assessed by analyzing the purpose it has in assisting in survival and reproduction. Investigating patterns of behaviors over generations reveals findings regarding the gradual evolution of an animals’ behavior.

Types of Animal Behaviorists

Those who enter the natural environment of their desired subject are called ethologists. Ethologists spend their days observing, documenting, and studying animals by crossing the threshold into the home and world of the subject being studied. They observe and document the subject’s reactions to potential mates or competition for mates, responses to threats and predators, and the processes the subject undergoes to maintain their lifestyle by making themselves a protected home and gathering food.

These scientists are not only able to understand behavior through observation, but can also take what they learn in a natural habitat to create a pseudo habitat in a zoo or wildlife refuge for endangered species. By doing so, they can adequately supply these animals with what’s needed to combat the species’ dwindling numbers. Creating these environments also allows for continued research and observation.

Finding the keys to an animal’s behavior is often performed within the laboratory, where theories are tested through the conduction of experiments to stimulate a reaction and observe the resulting behavior. Others within the lab focus on genetic, neurological and physiological factors that contribute to behavior. These lab-based behavior researchers are called psychobiologists or biopsychologists.

Applied animal behaviorists usually focus on behavioral problems of pets and livestock in homes, zoos, animal shelters, and on farms. Some have private practices in which they are called upon to help train and get to the root of behavioral problems for the sake and happiness of both the pet and its owner by working with the animals and showing their owners how to modify any problematic behavior.

How Can Someone Become an Animal Behaviorist, and What Doors Can It Open?

In most cases, a career in this field requires more than a Bachelor’s degree. However, a solid background in genetics, psychology, biology, zoology, or ecology can build a great foundation for anyone considering a career as an animal behaviorist. Advanced degrees in Veterinary Medicine, Biology, Zoology, Philosophy and Psychology are preferable for most research and clinical settings. Many animal behaviorists find themselves working for wildlife departments or doing research at universities and veterinary colleges. A PHD is a necessity if teaching at a college level is the career path of choice.

The field and scope of practice is constantly evolving. Those who wish to work with animals typically have available to them a number of research opportunities. Behaviorists are frequently employed by companies studying how certain diseases or drugs being researched can cause changes in behavior. There is a growing need for behaviorists in domestic care. Others may choose to focus their attention on managing the populations of species on wildlife and improving the health and quality of livestock.

The career options for the animal lover are highly varied. A behaviorist can be a veterinarian, a zookeeper, an animal trainer, and more. In some cases, specialists from different areas of practice work together to analyze causes and determine how to create the best environment for subjects. Although their fields of practice vary, they share the same goal of determining what underlying factors contribute to animal behavior, and in turn create numerous advancements for animals and humans alike.