They have been known to use video and vocal surveillance of their
targets. They sometimes spend a significant amount of time spying on their
subjects in person. They could be called the private detectives of the animal
They are ethologists -- also known as animal behaviorists. They sometimes
take a hands-on approach with their subjects.
Many people have heard of Jane Goodall and her research of chimpanzees
in Africa. Goodall is a wildlife ethologist.
In 1960, Goodall went to Africa's Gombe National Park to study chimpanzees.
She researched the social interaction among the chimps, the types of communities
these primates formed and how they communicated. Her work changed the way
people view these intelligent animals.
A newer field within this area is called farm ethology. Farm ethologists
study livestock in their natural habitats, as undisturbed as possible. That's
according to Don Comis. He is a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA).
In an article in Agricultural Research magazine, Comis points out that
USDA farm ethologists work to find objective ways of measuring stress in farm
animals to improve animal handling practices. Their observations have already
identified certain problems and possible solutions, Comis writes.
The USDA began a national program in farm ethology in 1994, says Comis.
"The program aims to find solutions to problems like piglet mortality
through observing animal behavior," Comis says.
This research can help the livestock farmer, he says. It can help reduce
piglet mortality by keeping sows from lying down on their young and crushing
them in the first 24 hours after birth.
Ethologists at the USDA are also studying beef cattle. Research in this
area has found that shifting the cattle's feeding time from dawn to dusk
helped control fighting and other aggressive behavior in the animals, Comis
Julie Morrow is the research leader of the USDA's Livestock Issues
Research Unit. She says her research involves studying both the stresses on
the animals and their well-being.
"A lot of what we do has to do with the immune system and hormones within
the animal and also studying their behavior," she says.
Morrow says she always knew she wanted to work with animals. As an undergraduate,
she took a farm animal behavior course.
"I liked it and was very interested in it, and found out I could actually
have a career in that field," she says. Morrow went on to earn her master's
degree and a PhD.
Getting a PhD is vital to becoming a research scientist in ethology, according
to Morrow. "If you want to be an animal technician or a laboratory technician,
then probably you can get a position like that with a bachelor's or master's
degree," she says.
But to become a research scientist, you need a PhD.
"I like to see students who want to do behavior work come out with a strong
background in animal physiology as well, because I don't think you can
separate behavior from what is happening physiologically to the animal," says
"The hormones and the connections between the neurons and the brain [are]
what causes behavior to happen. You also need research experience -- experience
developing, designing and planning studies."
Lab technicians are also vital to the USDA research, Morrow says. "What
my technicians do is they work with the blood samples to actually get the
data. They also look at the video [surveillance] tapes to, again, actually
get the data," she says.
These technicians, who the USDA calls biological lab technicians, usually
have training in ethology, Morrow says.
Technicians can use their positions as a stepping stone to higher-level
jobs, Morrow says. "As people gain more skills, they can also move up within
the system," she adds.
Morrow says it's important that someone considering ethology as a
career talk with people in the field.
"Let them know your name and let them know you are interested. Find out
if they have any positions,...volunteer or paid, so you can get some experience,"
At the technician level, this is an open field, Morrow says. But there
are probably only about 12 to 15 universities that have a farm animal ethologist
position within their departments.
Dan Weary is an animal behaviorist at a university. He is an applied scientist
doing research in the field of ethology.
"The kinds of work we do here...is that we are practically interested in
improving the living conditions for animals that are used by humans," he says.
"Those include companion animals, livestock and animals used in sport."
One of the tools that has seemed to be very useful in terms of improving
conditions for animals has been the study of their behavior and their behavioral
responses to different conditions, says Weary.
Weary's university has studied piglet mortality. Sows are put in a
farrowing crate after they have produced their piglets in commercial farms
in North America.
"That is highly restrictive of their movements," he says. "One of the reasons
why this piece of apparatus was invented was because one of the biggest causes
of mortality of little piglets was being crushed by their own mother."
In order to improve the conditions for both the sows and piglets, both
of their behaviors have to be understood, Weary says.
Another thing ethologists can learn by studying animal behavior is the
underlying problems that these behaviors reflect. "One of the most typical
things people look at is abnormal behavior," he says. A pacing zoo tiger or
an animal that licks off its own fur can reflect problems in the way the animal
is housed or kept, Weary explains.
"The other thing we have been looking at is some natural behaviors that
can be used as indications of either good things or bad things in the way
we are keeping animals."
Weary says one of the areas of his research interest is animal vocalizations,
or the calls of animals. "That is really neat because in some situations the
animals have developed a vocal repertoire that is designed to signal certain
problems," he says. "A baby calf, for example, lets its mother know it is
hungry by its call."
In certain areas, like animal welfare, funding is increasing, Weary says.
"The public is becoming increasingly concerned about farm animal welfare issues
and one of the ways of coming up with sensible solutions to these welfare
problems has been through the study of animal behavior," he says.
"This is an area which is going to increase. There has been considerable
growth in Europe, somewhat so in Canada and it is only just beginning in the
United States. There are now opportunities in the United States and there
will continue to be opportunities in this area.
"That isn't going to [create] thousands of jobs," Weary adds. "But
there will be an increase in the number of positions available."
Animal Behavior Society
Encourages and promotes the study of animal behavior
Purdue University -- Animal Sciences
Information on the university's undergraduate and graduate
programs, research, faculty and facilities
Texas Tech University, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural
Information on the degrees offered
Observing Swine Behavior to Lower Piglet Mortality
An article on ethologists' work to save piglets
Jane Goodall Institute
Learn about Goodall's work with chimpanzees in Africa