The Fixed Action Pattern and animal communication:

An important step, associated with the name of Konrad Lorenz though probably due more to his teacher, Heinroth, was the identification of fixed action patterns (FAPs). Lorenz popularized FAPs as instinctive responses that would occur reliably in the presence of identifiable stimuli (called sign stimuli or releasing stimuli). These FAPs could then be compared across species, and the similarities and differences between behaviour compared with the similarities and differences in morphology on which taxonomy was based. An important and much quoted study of the Anatidae (ducks and geese) by Heinroth used this technique. The ethologists noted that the stimuli that released FAPs were commonly features of the appearance or behaviour of other members of their own species, and they were able to show how important forms of animal communication could be mediated by a few simple FAPs. The most sophisticated investigation of this kind was the study by Karl von Frisch of the so-called “dance language” underlying bee communication. Lorenz developed an interesting theory of the evolution of animal communication based on his observations of the nature of fixed action patterns and the circumstances in which animals emit them.


A second important finding of Lorenz concerned the early learning of young nidifugous birds, a process he called imprinting. Lorenz observed that the young of birds such as geese and chickens spontaneously followed their mothers from almost the first day after they were hatched, and he discovered that this following response could be transferred to an arbitrary stimulus if the eggs were incubated artificially and the stimulus was presented during a critical period (now called a sensitive period) that covered the few days after hatching. The concept of imprinting has been widely adopted in developmental psychology.

Tinbergen's four questions for ethologists:

Lorenz’s collaborator, Niko Tinbergen, argued that ethology always needed to pay attention to four kinds of explanation of any instance of behaviour:

  1. function: how does the behaviour impact on the animal’s chances of survival and reproduction?
  2. causation: what are the stimuli that elicit the response, and how has it been modified by recent learning?
  3. development: how does the behaviour change with age, and what early experiences are necessary for the behaviour to be shown?
  4. evolutionary history: how does the behaviour compare with similar behaviour in related species, and how might it have arisen through the process of phylogeny?

The flowering of ethology:

Through the work of Lorenz and Tinbergen, ethology developed strongly in continental Europe in the years before World War II. After the war, Tinbergen moved to the University of Oxford, and ethology became stronger in the UK, with the additional influence of William Thorpe, Robert Hinde and Patrick Bateson at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour of the University of Cambridge, located in the village of Madingley. In this period, too, ethology began to develop strongly in North America.

Lorenz, Tinbergen, and von Frisch were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973 for their work in developing ethology.

Social ethology and recent developments:

In 1970, the English ethologist John H. Crook published an important paper in which he distinguished comparative ethology from social ethology, and argued that much of the ethology that had existed so far was really comparative ethology, looking at animals as individuals, whereas in the future, ethologists would need to concentrate on the behaviour of social groups of animals and the social structure within them. This was prescient. E. O. Wilson's book "Sociobiology"; appeared in 1975, and since that time the study of behaviour has been much more concerned with social aspects. It has also been driven by the stronger, but more sophisticated, Darwinism associated with Wilson and Richard Dawkins. The related development of behavioral ecology has also helped transform ethology. At the same time a substantial rapprochement with comparative psychology has occurred, so the modern scientific study of behaviour offers a more or less seamless spectrum of approaches, from animal cognition, more traditional comparative psychology, ethology, sociobiology and behavioural ecology.


There are often mismatches between human senses and those of the organisms they are observing. To compensate, ethologists often reach all the way back to epistemology to give them the tools to predict and avoid misinterpretation of data.

List of ethologists:

People who have made notable contributions to the field of ethology:

  • W. C. Allee
  • George Barlow
  • Patrick Bateson
  • John H. Crook
  • Charles Darwin
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Vitus B. Droscher
  • Dian Fossey
  • Karl von Frisch
  • Jane Goodall
  • Temple Grandin
  • Oskar Heinroth
  • Robert Hinde
  • Julian Huxley
  • Julian Jaynes
  • Konrad Lorenz
  • Desmond Morris
  • Ivan Pavlov
  • B. F. Skinner
  • William Thorpe
  • Niko Tinbergen
  • William Morton Wheeler
  • E. O. Wilson
  • Frans de Waal

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