Each day the sunrises and we begin our daily grind, we inevitably will be in touch with the ecology that surround us. When we run the water to brush our teeth and take our showers, when we get in our vehicles and drive to work, when we come home and check our email on our computers, when we call our friends on our cell phones, and when we dispose of our trash throughout our day.
Ecology is the study of our earth – it’s relationships with organisms and their environment, and how those relationships affect the planet. There is a lot we can do as a species to help our environment sustain itself. And a great way to begin is to get educated.
Behavioral Ecology / It’s Evolutionary
Behavioral ecology is the branch of ecology that focuses on the evolutionary causes of variation in behavior among populations and species. It works closely along with ethnology, but with more focuses on adjoining causes such as ecological stimulus, genetic bases, or physiological instrument for behaviors.
The principles of natural selection are applied to behavior with the underlying assumption that, within the constraints of their evolutionary histories, animals behave optimally by maximizing their genetic contribution to future generations.
The 3 Elements
Thus, behavioral ecology construes the field in its broadest sense to include:
1. The use of ecological and evolutionary processes to explain the occurrence and adaptive significance of behavior patterns
2. The use of behavioral processes to predict ecological patterns
3. Empirical, comparative analyses relating behavior to the environment in which it occurs
The Role of Nikolaas Tinbergen
The field of behavioral ecology emerged when Nikolaas Tinbergen, a Dutch ethologist, outlined four primary causes for behavior. These are function, causation, development, and evolutionary history. The four causes for behavior relate to nearly every action that an animal makes.
Assessing the impact of those four causes in specific situations is the primary focus of behavioral ecology. Organismal biology seeks to answer many questions about animals and what they do. Behavioral ecology addresses the “why?”
What’s in it for me?
A study of function addresses what an animal gains by making a decision. Tinbergen studied bird behavior extensively. While studying the function of their predatory behavior, he discovered how prey choice and location contributed to the survival of birds and their offspring. Thus, the function of a given behavior is generally related to the organism’s environment.
While studying causation, Tinbergen took a step back and asked what caused the birds to look for food in a given location in the first place. Just as human behavior is influenced by the knowledge that there is food in the refrigerator, animal behavior is influenced by signs marking the presence of various needs. For example, the circling seagulls are the causation of another bird choosing to search that location for food.
Development refers to the roles of genetic predisposition and learning on behavior. Most birds are able to fly, so they have a genetic predisposition toward finding food from the sky. In many cases, they have also witnessed their parents hunting or foraging. They learned various methods of acquiring food from their parents.
Their development directly impacted many behaviors that keep them alive on a daily basis.
The Importance of History
Behavioral ecologists do not only focus on the specific organism that they are studying. They also examine the creature’s evolutionary history, looking at various adaptations and trends appearing in its phylogeny.
Ecologists may examine how a population of birds entered an ecosystem, spread throughout it, and adapted to survive and thrive in it. The birds may have faced competition that forced them to adapt to a different food supply, or their beaks may have grown longer to allow them to reach a certain kind of prey.
In a nutshell, behavioral ecology aims to answer the “why” questions concerning animals, including humans. The field’s pioneer, Niko Tinbergen, set the framework for answering this question, but there are still many unanswered questions. Animals, especially humans, can be very complex, and understanding why they do what they do is not often an easy task. One day, perhaps, behavioral ecologists will have a universal understanding of animal behavior.
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